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Atopic Dermatitis: Signs, Diagnosis, and Treatment Options

September 6, 2016

Atopic dermatitis, also referred to as canine atopy, is one of the most common allergic skin diseases, second only to flea allergy dermatitis. Estimated to affect nearly 10 percent of dogs, canine atopy typically begins when the animal is between one to three years of age.

Tendency for Canine Atopy

Atopic dermatitis is a disease believed to be caused by an inherited tendency for an allergic reaction when exposed to allergens that are either absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Any dog can be affected, but certain breeds are more susceptible, including:

  • Scottish Terrier
  • Boston Terrier
  • Wirehair Fox Terrier
  • Dalmatian
  • Golden Retriever
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Lhasa Apso
  • West Highland White Terrier
  • Poodle
  • English Setter
  • Irish Setter
  • Boxer
  • Bulldog

First Signs of Atopic Dermatitis

In the early stages, dogs suffering from canine atopy will present with symptoms such as:

  • Seasonal itching
  • Normal looking skin
  • Scratching at ears and undersides
  • Itching behaviors accompanied by:
    • Excessive scratching
    • Unusual face-rubbing of the face and ears
    • Red or irritated skin
    • Dry and scaly skin
    • Patchy hair loss
    • Sneezing
    • Allergic rhinitis
    • Watery eyes
    • Ear discharge
    • Brown stains on the feet caused by licking

It should be noted that often times the disease does not move beyond this period.

Signs of Advanced Atopic Dermatitis

In later stages of the disease, the animal will be miserable. Symptoms associated with the disease as it progresses may include:

  • Excoriations
  • Hair loss
  • Scabs
  • Crusts
  • Development of secondary bacterial skin infections
  • Skin becomes thick with darkened pigment
  • Development of secondary dry or greasy seborrhea with flaky skin

Ear Infections Associated with Canine Atopy

Some dogs diagnosed with canine atopy will accompany the symptoms by also presenting with ear canal infections, otitis externa. Also interesting, some dogs will only present with otitis externa. These dogs often exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Red and inflamed ear flaps
  • Brown wax-filled ear canals
  • Bacterial or yeast otitis

Canine Atopy Diagnosis

The clinical signs of canine atopy are very similar to a number of other conditions, including health problems that could indicate something more serious. When examining the animal it can be difficult to distinguish canine atopy from the following skin diseases:

  • Flea allergy dermatitis
  • Scabies
  • Food allergies
  • Demodectic mange

Diagnosis of atopy needs to include:

  • History of animal
  • Location of the skin lesions
  • Pattern of occurrence (Seasonal?)
  • Skin scrapings
  • Bacterial and fungal cultures
  • Skin biopsy
  • Hypoallergenic test diet

Treatment of Atopic Dermatitis

Because atopic dogs are typically allergic to many allergens it can be difficult to avoid exposure to all. There is no cure.  However, certain products and procedures can provide relief from the signs and discomfort:

  • See your veterinarian about pharmaceuticals that can provide relief including Atopica® from Elanco Animal Health, and Apoquel® from Zoetis Animal Health.
  • The latest therapy approach is based on the application of a monoclonal antibody product called Cytopoint™ from Zoetis which can offer relief over the course of several weeks.
  • Antihistamines
    • Control itching and scratching in some dogs
  • Corticosteroids
    • Very effective, but with side effects
  • Topical anesthetics containing hydrocortisone
    • Provide temporary relief from pain and itching
  • Special shampoos designed to:
    • Rehydrate skin
    • Treat bacterial infection
    • Control seborrhea
  • Removal of pollen from coat when dog has been outside by wiping animal down with a damp towel when they come in the house
  • Most dogs with canine atopy are also allergic to fleas;  so an effective flea treatment should be applied during the relevant season
  • Switching food to a higher-quality, no grain or even to a canned food

Talking to Clients about Canine Atopy

When talking to clients they should be reminded that aside from the recommendations above, there are other steps they can take that will help to diminish the symptoms and reduce discomfort. Advise clients that the following actions will help to remove allergens from their animal’s living environment:

  • Add an air purifier
  • Use a dehumidifier
  • Use air conditioners and regularly change filters
  • Maintain humidity in the house at less than 50%
  • Use hypoallergenic cushions and synthetic materials for pet bedding
  • Clean and remove dust from house frequently
  • Spray regularly with mold preventers
  • Frequently wash bedding
  • Reduce the time spent outdoors
  • Keep grass cut short
  • Bathe dog frequently
  • Avoid houseplants

There is no way to completely avoid all allergens, but knowing ways to eliminate some of them may make a difference to one of your patients. 

To learn additional ways to help pets with skin diseases, please contact your Covetrus representative at 855.724.3461 today.

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