Atopic Dermatitis: An overview

Posted by MyDogDoc on

  • Atopic dermatitis (also known as atopy) is an allergic skin disease of dogs that can run in families.

  • It is a common cause of red, itchy (pruritic) skin affecting around 10% of dogs.

  • An allergy is when the body’s immune system over-reacts to a usually harmless substance. In atopic dermatitis the dog is allergic to things in the environment - commonly tiny house dust mites and storage mites or pollens from grass, weed or trees.

  • Diagnosing atopic dermatitis can be challenging because there isn’t one specific test that can give us an answer. Things your vet will consider are your dog’s age, symptoms and they will need to check there aren’t any other skin problems that need treating such as parasites and infections. Food allergies will also need to be ruled out.

  • There are many safe and effective treatments that can be used to help your pup live a healthy, happy and relatively itch free life.

What is atopic dermatitis?

At the heart of atopic dermatitis is the skin and how it reacts to normally harmless substances (allergens) in the environment, such as pollen.

The skin is the largest organ in the body and one of the most important. It has many essential roles such as temperature control, sense of touch but is also part of the body’s immune system. It acts as a ‘barrier’ forming the first line of defence against the outside world.

Itchy dogs with atopic dermatitis have a weaker skin barrier and an immune system that overreacts to certain everyday substances in the environment causing inflamed, red and itchy skin.

Atopic dermatitis is a complex disease and not fully understood- even by experts! It is known to be hereditary and there are certain breeds of dogs such as Labradors and West Highland White Terriers that are more prone to developing the condition.

The most common allergies are to house dust mites (present in every house, no matter how immaculate!) and storage mites. These are tiny and invisible to the naked eye and cause itch all year round. Other dogs have seasonal allergies, much like people with hay fever, to things such as grass, weed or tree pollens. This means they only itch at certain times of the year when these plants are blooming. Many poor dogs have more than one trigger and this can make skin allergies more complicated to manage.


The main signs of atopic dermatitis are a poor itchy, scratchy, licking, nibbling and rubbing dog!

The areas that are the itchiest are usually the face, ears, paws, groin and armpits.

As the skin becomes inflamed, you might see redness, rashes, a darkening of the skin (pigmentation) and skin/ear infections that keep coming back. As our itchy friend scratches, the barrier of the skin is weakened even more. We call this the itch scratch cycle.

There may also be signs of watery eyes (allergic conjunctivitis) or a runny nose, similar to those people often get with allergies. People can also get atopic dermatitis.

What is the treatment available?

While there is no way to prevent your dog from developing allergies, there are excellent treatment options available. The next articles take you through the journey to diagnosing atopic dermatitis and the options available to relieve your pup’s itch.

We understand it can be a worrying time if you think you dog may have signs of atopic dermatitis or has been diagnosed with the condition. If you would like to book an appointment we can talk through your dog’s individual case and answer any questions you may have.

Allergic skin disease Allergy Atopic dermatitis Atopy Dog Ear infection Health House dust mites Itchy Itchy ears Itchy paws Itchy skin Pollens Red skin Skin darkening Skin infection Sore skin Storage mites West Highland White Terrier

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