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Allergies & Skin Issues in Pets

Allergies & Skin Issues in Pets


The most common reason for skin problems in our pets is an underlying allergy. Allergies are one of the most common causes for recurrent ear infections in companion pets.


A veterinary exam is an important first step in eliminating other causes of itching, including fleas or infection. If your veterinarian refers you to a dermatologist, it is because he or she sees a chronic or serious issue that is best dealt with by a specialist. Veterinary dermatologists have had specialty training for 2 to 3 years after veterinary school and have passed a certification exam given by the American College of Veterinary Dermatology.


  • Itching, scratching, shaking head, pawing at ears
  • Sneezing, snoring, runny eyes/nose, ear infections
  • Chewing, licking, hair loss, bald spots
  • Vomiting, diarrhea, scooting
  • Rash on feet, ears, face, base of tail, toes, abdomen


  • Ectoparasites: Fleas, ticks, lice, and mites are a common cause of itching, scratching and biting which can lead to skin irritation, hair loss and infection. Bee stings and spider bites can cause allergic reactions.
  • Environment: Irritants such as pollen, dust, mold, chemicals and smoke can cause skin disorders such as atopic dermatitis (atopy), a chronic inflammatory disease, as well as respiratory issues, including asthma. Atopy, or inhalant allergy, is a hypersensitivity reaction to environmental allergens such as pollens, mold spores, dust and dust mites. The most common signs of this allergy are itching of the belly and "arm pits," face rubbing, foot licking, and recurrent ear and skin infections. Diagnosis is based on the pet's history of skin problems, lack of response to dietary restriction, lack of response to external parasite treatment, and results of allergy testing (skin and blood tests).
  • Food: The cause of about 10-15% of allergy cases in pets, food allergies are an immune system response to intact proteins, such as meat, chicken, fish, dairy, egg, or wheat. Food intolerance and ingredient sensitivities may cause similar symptoms. Grain allergies are rare. A period of diet restriction or a food trial is the only way to determine if a pet has a food allergy.


  • Veterinary Exam: Owners should provide a history of the pet's symptoms, potential exposures, and diet.
  • Blood and Skin Tests: Intradermal allergy testing—injecting small amounts of common allergens into the pet's skin—is considered the gold standard.
  • Food Trial: Your veterinarian may recommend a food trial to determine if your pet has an allergy or sensitivity. The most important (and most difficult) part of a food trial is restricting what the pet eats to the trial diet only. This means eliminating all other treats, snacks, supplements, rawhide, pig ears, flavored chews, bones, and even flavored medications. Some pets improve in 2-3 weeks; some take 2-3 months. A minimum of 8 weeks on a restricted diet is recommended. Food allergies are a life-long condition; therefore, pets should continue to avoid eating the foods they are found to be allergic to.


Your veterinarian may recommend:

  • Ectoparasite Control: Use flea and tick preventives consistently.
  • Diet Change: Avoid allergens or ingredient sensitivities. If recommended, use prebiotics or probiotics.
  • Medication: Options include antihistamines, steroids, immune modulators, and immunotherapy. Immunotherapy involves giving a pet injections of allergens in small, but increasing, quantities. The goal is to "retrain" the pet's immune system to be less reactive to those allergens and, therefore, prevent the symptoms of the allergy. Approximately 70% of dogs and 50-60% of cats respond to this treatment.
  • Environment & Hygiene: On a regular basis, clean your pet's bedding, bathe and groom your pet, and clean its ears.

If your pet is rubbing, licking or biting themselves, a visit to your veterinarian is recommended to help determine the cause.

Updated: August 24, 2022