Atopic dermatitis is a very common, allergic and itchy (pruritic) skin condition affecting around 1 in 10 dogs.
Many different skin conditions can cause the same signs: itchy, red, irritated and damaged skin.
An accurate diagnosis is vital to ensure successful treatment.
Diagnosing atopy involves ruling out other problems that can cause similar symptoms such as parasites, skin infections and food allergy.
It would be great if there was just one test to rule out other conditions but unfortunately there isn’t. Vets may need to run lots of tests to make sure they get the right answers.
Although we know the diagnostic process can take time and patience (from owners, vets and the dogs!) many of the tests are relatively simple and not expensive to perform.
Once a diagnosis of atopic dermatitis has been reached, skin and blood tests are available to pin point the allergens that your dog is reacting to.
Symptoms that make us suspicious of atopic dermatitis
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, runny eyes (allergic conjunctivitis) or a runny nose similar to those people often get with allergies.
Some more specific clues that increase the suspicion your dog has atopic dermatitis:
Your dog’s skin signs became itchy when they were under 3 years of age. (Usually between 6 months and 3 years)
Your dog is mostly kept indoors.
Your dog was itchy before the skin rashes or other visible skin changes developed.
Your dog has itchy, red front paws.
They have itchy and red insides to their ear flaps but the edges of the ear flaps look normal
If your dog fits this description, then it is much more likely the frustrating itch is caused by atopic dermatitis. That’s not the end of the story though, other issues that need ruling out include:
External parasites- such as fleas and mites. Tests like skin scrapes, where a small sample of skin is examined under the microscope, may be performed and you will need to ensure that your pup is on effective, regular flea control.
Skin infections– bacteria and yeasts. Small samples from the skin may be looked at under the microscope. Treatments such as medicated antibacterial/antifungal shampoos may be prescribed.
Food allergies- if your pup is itchy all year round then a food allergy may be involved. You may be asked to put your dog on an ‘elimination diet’ with a new source of protein your dog has not had before.
If all these have been ruled out or treated and your pup is still itchy then atopic dermatitis is the most likely cause. Allergy skin testing or blood tests can further narrow down the culprits of your dog’s itch. This can enable more tailored advice and treatment options to be given.
Allergy skin test (Intradermal allergy testing)
This is usually done by a skin specialist. They will have a light sedation and an area of fur clipped on their side. Tiny amounts of things they might be allergic to are injected into the skin and then they monitor that area for a reaction.
Allergy blood test (serology testing)
A sample of blood is taken and sent to a special laboratory to find out what your dog is allergic to.
The journey towards getting an answer for your itchy friend can feel frustrating at times but it’s important to hang in there to find out what will help them lead a more comfortable life. Many different allergy triggers can be treated by the same medicines and can often be started while tests are being run to give you furry companion (and you!!) some much needed relief.
If you need any help or guidance then contact one of the My Dog Doc team.