Dog Allergies 101

How to recognize allergies and make your dog more comfortable. If you prefer to look and listen rather than read, there's a good Video below.

dog in grass

According to VPI Pet Insurance, the nation’s oldest and largest pet insurer, skin allergies in dogs topped the list last year for reasons policyholders took their dogs to the veterinarian. The average claim for the vet visit was $187.

Allergies in dogs can be expensive and frustrating to diagnose and treat for the dog, the owner and the vet.


Allergies are over-reaction or hypersensitivity of the immune system to everyday substances known as allergens. There are three types of dog allergies: 1) food allergy, 2) atopy or environmental allergy and 3) fleabite allergy.

More allergies or better diagnosis?

Some of the growth in allergies in dogs may be today’s owners willingness to recognize this problem and seek help. Some growth may be the number of products in today’s homes, the use of upholstered furniture and carpeting which trap allergens and improvements in indoor climate control which has reduced exchange of indoor air with the outdoors.


Licking, scratching or biting paws or other body parts and tugging at ears are the most common symptoms. A dog may lick one area so frequently that a ‘hot spot’ develops. Properly called acute moist dermatitis, hot spots are areas where the itchy skin is licked raw and infections often develop.

If the allergy is food related, dogs often have chronic vomiting and diarrhea as well as itching.

First Step

If your dog is whining as well as licking/scratching/pulling, he probably has an infection. This is very common behavior with ear infections even if you can’t see anything wrong in the ear. You need to get him to a vet as quickly as possible and determine if he needs an antibiotic regiment.

If your dog has suddenly started licking his paws but the skin is intact, he may have come into contact with something that has irritated his skin. Try bathing him with a soapless shampoo such as Dechra DermaBenSs Shampoo to avoid further irritation

He also may have been bitten by an ant or insect. If he doesn’t show symptoms other than licking, try Benadryl oral pill or Bendaryl spray on the affected area.

(I hope you are treating your dog with a monthly flea and tick preventive. These are available now both as topical or oral medications. You’ll save money and aggravation if you prevent these problems.)

If the problem persists, a visit to the vet is in order.

Second step

The vet can rule out problems such as fleas, mange, diseases and other infections. Your vet may do blood tests as well as a physical exam.

Your dog’s age as well as his condition needs to be evaluated. Some young dogs suffer acne-like conditions that can cause skin inflammation, but they usually grow out of it and don’t require treatment.  

If there doesn’t appear to be an identifiable cause, you vet may suggest one of two paths of treatment depending on the severity of your dog’s symptoms.

One path is to discuss potential allergic triggers (see and a change of diet to unusual sources of protein such as kangaroo or buffalo. Many dogs are allergic to chicken and other poultry even though chicken is the basis of many dog foods and treats.

The other path is to do testing to try to identify the cause of the allergy for moderate to severe conditions. These possible tests are described in

Before you spend much money and if the vet hasn't identified a specific problem, it's worth trying Grandma's inexpensive remedies.

Grandma's remedies

  • Food - You don’t have to buy your vet’s expensive prescription dog food. Quality commercial products are available at the pet store. For instance, Natural Balance has a line of limited ingredient dog foods as does the more expensive Instinct brand.

If your dog is still a puppy, it’s a good idea to rotate his dog food (every time you finish a small bag) as long as you stay within the same family brand to avoid potential stomach upsets.

  • Over-the-counter pills - Some vets still recommend antihistamines (such as Benadryl at 1mg per pound of dog weight twice a day or Claritin at 1/4mg per pound of dog weight once a day) although nearly everyone acknowledges that these don’t work on allergies the way they used to.

  • Skin sprays - Try a soothing spray such as Dermal Soothe Anti-Itch Spray for Dogs & Cats which is neither a cortisone nor anti-fungal (don't start with the most serious treatments) and weekly baths with oatmeal or soapless shampoo.

  • Oatmeal soak - An alternate approach is to use an oatmeal soak such as Aveeno Soothing Bath Treatment, Fragrance Free for 15 minutes once or twice a day.

  • Wash paws - Every time you finish walking your dog, clean his paws with plain water or a hypoallergic wipe. I use everyday clean wipes from Walmart.

  • Fatty acids - I don't like recommending supplements. We buy commercial balanced dog food so why unbalance it? I'm relenting because so many owners say Omega 3/Omega 6 reduce itching in their dogs. Ask your vet for a recommendation or try 3V Caps HP SNIP TIPS or Pure Icelandic Salmon Oil for Dogs and Cats.


If you prefer to learn via video or want to see what ‘hot spots’ look like, here’s a lengthy (4-minute) but well done video.

Compensation Disclosure: This site receives compensation for referred sales of some or all mentioned products.