What is it?

Atopy, also known as Atopic Dermatitis or Allergic Dermatitis, is the result of a hypersensitive reaction to an ordinarily harmless substance or substances in the environment. Such allergens include pollens, dust mites, or mould spores. It is similar to hay fever in humans, however instead of a runny nose and itchy eyes, it affects their skin. These allergens gain entry through the skin barrier, where they are presented to the immune system. In a healthy animal, there would be no response. However, in atopic dogs, the immune system responds and results in the sensation of itching. This often results in a vicious cycle of damage to skin allowing more allergens in, leading to more itching and worsening of the problem. Secondary skin infections are usually present at the time of diagnosis.

How is it Diagnosed?

There is no specific test to diagnose atopy. Diagnosis is based on a thorough assessment of the patient, and ruling out other causes of itching.

  • Diagnosis is firstly based on a thorough physical examination and analysis of the history of itching. It is important to determine where the pet is scratching, and at what times. Some allergens will only be present during certain times of the year, thus if the scratching is associated with a certain season it may help to diagnose atopy.
  • All other causes of itching should be ruled out to diagnose atopy. These include fleas, mites, lice, ringworm, food allergies, and bacterial or fungal skin infections.
  • When the itching started is an important factor in the diagnosis. About 70% of atopic dogs start scratching between ages 1-3.
  • The location of the scratching and subsequent infections may help to diagnose atopy. Atopic animals will generally chew and scratch at their feet, armpits, tummy, rear end, and around the eyes and mouth. They may also suffer from repeated ear infections or anal gland issues.

What can be done?

There are multiple treatment options for atopy, and these are often used in conjunction with each other to get the best possible management of the condition.

  1. Removing or reducing the allergen – it usually isn’t possible to eliminate an environmental allergen completely, however steps can be taken to reduce the load, such as weekly baths to remove allergens from the coat, and keeping bedding clean and dust-free.
  2. Stopping the itch – medications are available to stop your pet from feeling itchy. These include Apoquel, corticosteroids, or cyclosporine. This is a key step in interrupting the itch cycle and clearing infections.
  3. Improving the skin barrier – allergens make their way into the bloodstream through a defective skin barrier. Supplementation with strong omega-3 oils, along with topical rinses/conditioners can help to improve the skin barrier and reduce allergens being presented to the immune system.
  4. Treating secondary skin infections – Most pets with atopy will have some form of skin infection at the time of diagnosis. This is due to the pet scratching their skin, causing scabbing which can become infected. They may also have ear infections or anal gland infections. These will generally be treated with antibiotics.
  5. Hyposensitisation (Allergen Specific Immunotherapy) – This is a treatment that first determines what the pet is allergic to, and then creates injections designed to de-sensitise the pet to these allergens. This treatment is performed at a dermatologist.
  6. Strict parasite control – atopic pets must be kept parasite-free to ensure there are no other factors causing them to scratch.

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