Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

3 min read
Jan 14, 2022

With springtime comes warmer weather, blooming flowers, and—you guessed it—allergies. Pets who suffer from allergies can become miserably itchy and scratchy, which definitely puts a damper on them having a good quality of life. 

Canine atopic dermatitis (AD), also known as allergic dermatitis and canine atopy, is one of those allergies that can make a dog feel like an itchy mess. 

AD is an exaggerated allergic response to common environmental particles, such as dust or pollen. Certain breeds of dogs, such as the Golden Retriever, Boston Terrier, and Labrador Retriever, are genetically predisposed to developing AD. 


Symptoms usually begin between 6 months and 3 years of age. These symptoms may be seasonal (when the weather warms up) or nonseasonal.

Itchiness, commonly on the paws, face, and belly, is the most characteristic sign. A dog with AD will scratch, bite, and chew the itchy areas, which can lead to hair loss and serious skin lesions that can become infected. Interestingly, for many dogs, chronic ear inflammation may be the only noticeable sign of AD. 


Diagnosing AD can be challenging, requiring the exclusion of other itchy skin conditions, such as food allergies and flea allergy dermatitis. A veterinarian will first perform a thorough physical examination and ask detailed questions to learn more about your pets health history. 

Allergy testing is frequently used in cases of AD. It does not diagnose the condition. Instead, allergy testing identifies the ‘culprit’ allergens, which helps guide treatment. Two types of allergy testing are available: intradermal and blood testing. 

Intradermal testing involves sedation, injecting tiny amounts of different allergens into the skin, and waiting for a response. For blood testing, a blood sample is sent to a laboratory for the detection of antibodies to the allergens. Intradermal testing is the preferred allergy test. 


AD may not be curable, but it is manageable. Allergen-specific immunotherapy (ASIT) is the gold standard for treating AD. ASIT, which is developed according to intradermal allergy testing results, improves how the immune system responds to the offending allergen. Administered by either injection or allergy drops, ASIT takes about 6–12 months to have a significant effect. It is a lifelong therapy but can be given less frequently over time.  

Anti-allergy medications are also available. For example, cyclosporine and oclacitinib suppress the immune response to allergens; impressively, oclacitinib begins working in as little as 1–2 days. Other medications include antihistamines and steroids. Several medications may need to be tried before finding one that works. 

Other Treatment Strategies:

  • ‘Culprit’ allergen avoidance. Avoiding the offending allergen is usually difficult and impractical, depending on a dog’s geographic location. 
  • Bathing. Bathing relieves itchiness by mechanically removing itch-inducing allergens.  
  • Year-round flea control. Flea allergy dermatitis can worsen AD. Providing year-round flea protection can help keep AD from getting worse. 
  • Anti-itch medications. For acute flare-ups of AD, a short treatment course of steroids can provide short-term itch relief. 

AD is a common skin allergy in dogs. Identifying the ‘culprit’ allergen through allergy testing helps a veterinarian devise an effective treatment plan. Because AD requires lifelong treatment, both the pet parent and veterinarian need to be committed to providing long-term, consistent itch relief for a dog with AD.  

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Nothing in this article should be construed as financial, legal or veterinary advice. Please consult your own advisors for questions relating to your and your pet’s specific circumstances.   

1 Pet Insurance offered by MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC is underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company (“IAIC”), a Delaware insurance company, headquartered at 485 Madison Avenue, NY, NY 10022, and Metropolitan General Insurance Company (“MetGen”), a Rhode Island insurance company, headquartered at 700 Quaker Lane, Warwick, RI 02886, in those states where MetGen’s policies are available. MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC is the policy administrator authorized by IAIC and MetGen to offer and administer pet insurance policies. MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC was previously known as PetFirst Healthcare, LLC and in some states continues to operate under that name pending approval of its application for a name change. The entity may operate under an alternate, assumed, and/or fictitious name in certain jurisdictions as approved, including MetLife Pet Insurance Services LLC (New York and Minnesota), MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions Agency LLC (Illinois), and such other alternate, assumed, or fictitious names approved by certain jurisdictions

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