Many owners associate dog allergies with the spring and fall seasons. However, winter allergies in dogs are just as common, and may result in itchy skin, dull coat and breathing difficulties for dogs. Luckily, there are things you can do to ease your pet's discomfort.
Dog winter allergies are caused or worsened by allergens present specifically during winter months. They either occur naturally, or are the result of cold-weather specific conditions. For example, a dog may experience dust allergies in winter when the air is less circulated and a dog spends more time indoors, or because of dry air from room heating.
There are four primary types of winter allergies in dogs:
- Mold related allergies
- Contact allergies
- Dust mites allergies
- Dry air related allergies
A dog's body will react to these causes for several reasons, including:
- Natural immune system reaction
- Overactive immune system
- Allergen build-up during winter months
- Allergic reaction to the cold weather
Winter Allergies or Something Else?
Depending on the symptoms that a dog exhibits, it’s important to determine the exact cause. For some canines, winter allergies may well be the culprit. For others, allergy symptoms may be the result of something else entirely that only showed up in winter:
- Autoimmune disease
- Result of medical treatment (such as radiation therapy)
- Food related allergies
- Illness (such as kennel cough)
- Foreign bodies in the eye
- Overpowering scents
- Natural or nervous behavior
- Improperly balanced diet
- Side effects of supplements
Testing for Winter Allergies in Dogs
To get to the bottom of your dog’s symptoms of winter allergies, allergy testing is a must. Testing is used to identify specific winter related allergens so that they can be avoided and appropriately treated.
There are two types of allergy testing – blood testing and skin testing.
Blood testing looks for antibodies in a dog’s blood that are induced by antigens. The most commonly used tests to look for these antibodies are the RAST test or the ELISA test. Of the two tests, the ELISA is the more reliable option.
Skin testing involves a small amount of an antigen being injected into a dog's skin to induce a possible allergic reaction. When your dog is allergic to an antigen, a skin response will be seen at the sight of the injection. When a reaction is induced by an antigen, a test is positive for that allergen.
The average cost of skin allergy testing ranges between $195 to $250.
The average cost of blood allergy testing ranges between $200 and $300.
Dog Breeds Most Susceptible to Winter Allergies
Allergies can affect any dog and breed of any age and gender. However, some breeds are more susceptible to skin related winter allergies:
- American bulldogs
- English bulldogs
- Labrador retrievers
- Pit bulls
10 Common Signs of Winter Allergies in Dogs
Symptoms of winter allergies in dogs vary depending on the exact cause, individual dog's reaction and the allergen in question. Below are the most common reactions.
1. Itchy Skin
Itchy skin can result from dryness, allergic reactions to contact allergens and poor air quality. You may notice that your dog is constantly itching or biting their skin, has a discolored rash at the area of affliction, rubbing against things in order to scratch, redness or flaking of the skin, swelling of the skin, or wet and infected sores on the skin.
2. Red or Swollen Areas of Skin
When a dog's skin is affected by allergens, constant scratching can cause swelling, redness, and even open sores. These symptoms should be controlled by reducing scratching in dogs using a topical anti-itch cream (vet prescribed antibiotic treatment or over the counter treatment). Then a dog must wear an e-collar, and you can proceed with the removal of allergens.
Coughing is a dog's immune system's way of trying to eliminate allergens from their respiratory system. Coughing may be caused by many reasons, but in the case of allergies, it's generally the result of a lack of moisture in the air. Coughing should be treated temporarily with a cough suppressant while allergy testing takes place.
4. Runny Nose
One of the easiest symptoms of winter allergies in dogs to recognize is a dog's runny nose. When allergens enter your pet's nasal passages, the immune system tries to flush out the allergens which subsequently causes nasal discharge and sneezing. The only treatment of runny nose in dogs is to identify and eliminate the allergen.
5. Dry Skin
A dog's dry skin may appear red, flaky, scaly, and itch. This can be the result of exposure to contact allergens or a lack of moisture in the air. Moisturizing the skin, adding omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil to a dog's diet (through food or supplements) and using air humidifiers around the house will help to resolve dry skin concerns. There are also home remedies you can try.
6. Continuous Scratching
Constant scratching of the skin and ears are very common signs of allergic reactions in dogs, and should be addressed as soon as possible to prevent further complications. Excessive scratching will cause shedding, but more importantly it may cause an open wound to develop and lead to infection if not treated properly. Once again, using topical treatments while removing allergens is the best approach.
7. Discharge from the Eyes
Discharge from a dog's eyes will appear either clear or greenish, depending on the allergen and the severity of the allergic reaction. Sometimes, eye discharge that is clear or greenish is a sign of a more serious infection, but this is not always the case. For example, a dog may have serious pollen allergies and during the springtime “yellow haze” their eyes will fill with green discharge.
8. Excessive Licking (Especially Paws/Feet)
When a dog's skin becomes dry and itchy, they will try to “scratch” themselves by biting or licking the area. This is particularly common when your dog's feet are affected by allergies. This excessive licking must be prevented since it can result in open sores and later, infections. Excessive licking can also lead to lick granulomas.
Sneezing is the result of allergens entering a pet's nose and the body attempting to expel these allergens with force. It's not a dangerous symptom but will be annoying for both you and the dog. Some sneezing medications can soothe these symptoms, but ideally, the allergen should be removed to prevent recurrence.
10. Redness of the Eyes
Irritation of the eyes due to dryness or itching is very common with winter allergies in dogs. This irritation can be soothed with eye drops while elimination of allergens takes place. However, red eyes may also be a symptom of other health issues, so it's important to visit your veterinarian for a check-up.
8 Ways to Treat a Dog's Winter Allergy Symptoms
Dog winter allergies should be treated as a whole; however, some symptoms like those mentioned above (sneezing, for example) are not dangerous and can be relieved while you're awaiting allergy test results. Below are the most common treatments available.
Steroids will suppress a dog's immune system reaction to allergens and either stop or slow down the symptoms. Unfortunately, steroids also shut down necessary immune system responses, which may result in health problems for some dogs. Steroids should not be used as a long-term treatment approach due to this risk.
2. Medicated Baths
Medicated baths can soothe itchy skin in dogs, and reduce inflamed skin through various topical solutions. The effect of these baths using a medicated shampoo are temporary, however. Unless your dog's allergies are the result of parasites that can be eliminated (for example, flea allergies), the symptoms will return shortly after bathing.
3. Cortisone Creams
Cortisone creams work for dogs the same way they work for humans. Through topical application, dermatological reactions to allergens can be temporarily soothed. Cortisone creams are not specifically developed for use on dogs (with the exception of hydrocortisone), so their use should only be short-term and limited in application.
Most allergic reactions often result in dry, cracked, and itchy skin. These dermatological symptoms of winter allergies in dogs can be soothed or even remedied through the regular use of a dog-friendly moisturizer. It’s crucial to use a moisturizer that was specifically developed for and is safe for dogs, such as Skin Soother. Many human creams can contain ingredients that are toxic to dogs.
In case of severe allergic reactions, antibiotics may be necessary to attack infection that develops because of symptoms. For example, a dog with extremely itchy skin may scratch so much that the skin breaks open and becomes dangerously infected. In such extreme cases, systemic antibiotics are used as a comprehensive treatment, and there's a very specific approach to using them.
These types of allergy related infections are frequently due to the introduction of bacteria from a dog's nails into their broken skin. Antibiotics will not treat winter allergies in dogs, but instead they will address the resulting symptoms that may arise.
In the case of lesser infections or cases where infection has not yet taken hold but an open wound is present, antibiotic creams may be used. These creams treat localized areas to eliminate or prevent minimal infection but are less effective on serious infections.
Antibiotic creams developed specifically for dogs are the only ones you can use; stay away from creams made for humans. Dogs should also be prevented from ingesting any balms, ointments and creams used, this can be done with Elizabethan collars or the more comfortable inflatable dog collars.
6. Humidifier Treatment
Winter allergies in dogs are often worsened by dry air, both in the house and outside. Dry heated air especially can contribute to a dog's dry itchy skin and dried mucous membranes.
A good air humidifier can reduce these symptoms by introducing moisture into the air. Humidifiers are also helpful for dogs with respiratory allergy symptoms because they moisturize mucus membranes and make it air easier for a dog to breathe.
7. Regular Grooming
Regular grooming is particularly important for dogs that have allergies like dust allergies. Frequent brushing reduces the buildup of dust and dirt as well as dried skin, and it also promotes better skin health in dogs. It’s important to select a grooming brush that is well suited to your dog’s coat. Using the wrong type of brush can make grooming painful, particularly for dogs with skin related allergy symptoms.
8. Cough Medication
When a dog has allergies that result in coughing, your vet can prescribe a cough suppressant as a temporary solution while you're working on removing allergens.
Suppressing a dog’s cough will result in less respiratory discomfort and a better quality of life. Be careful, however, because even veterinary cough treatments can have side effects and their use should be monitored closely.
4 Best Treatments for Winter Allergies in Dogs
Treating allergy symptoms with the above methods will make your pet more comfortable. However, to actually eliminate allergy discomfort, a more targeted treatment is required. Treatment for winter allergies in dogs begins with testing to determine the specific cause of the allergic reaction, and from there, choose the necessary treatment approach.
1. Allergy Shots
This is called immunotherapy. Similar to vaccines, allergy shots work by introducing the allergen into a dog’s system gradually to build up an immunity to said allergen. After a period of receiving these shots, your dog should have a minimal to zero reaction to the allergen.
The cost of allergy shots varies depending on the amount of serum needed per month. For example, for a dog needing 3 ml a month, the serum will cost $30. The amount of serum needed during this type of immunotherapy will get reduced down to a “maintenance dose,” so the spending will drop over time.
2. Allergy Drops
This is referred to as sublingual immunotherapy. Allergy drops work in a similar fashion as allergy shots, but some anecdotal evidence shows them to be faster acting. Comparing allergy drops vs. allergy shots, both have their own pros and cons.
Pros of allergy drops vs allergy shots:
- No need to use needles/injections
- This can be done at home
- Less side effects
- Potentially cheaper
- Results are achieved quicker
Cons of allergy drops vs allergy shots:
- Only a single allergen can be addressed at a time
- Less medications for drops are currently FDA approved
- Not enough studies on the long-term safety of allergy drops
- Possible reactions when using other medications in dogs
- Should be used every day
Allergy drop pricing varies depending on the strength of the drops used and the number of drops purchased at one time. For example, 30 sublingual drops at 16 mg costs $75 on average.
3. Regular House Cleaning
If your dog has allergies related to dust mites that may build up during winter, regular house cleaning can be of huge help. Keep your home as dust free as possible with consistent vacuuming and dusting. You should also groom and brush your pet daily to reduce the buildup of dust or allergens in their coat.
When cleaning, a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter is the best choice. A 1997 study observed that HEPA filters are most effective at removing airborne particles, which are the cause of allergic reactions in dogs.
It is also advisable to avoid using chemical based cleaners around the house, some of which can elicit further allergic reactions in your pets. Organic based cleaning products like Seventh Generation are the best place to start.
4. Air Purifier
Even if you already have a humidifier to help your dog with allergic symptoms, an air purifier can be another great tool to fight winter allergies in dogs. During winter months, less fresh air is circulated around the home, so it’s important to remove allergens from the air that is circulated. Again, a high-quality HEPA air filter used in an air purifier will do the best job.