Joan Merriam: Sneezing, sniffling, scratching — it’s allergy season! |

Joan Merriam: Sneezing, sniffling, scratching — it’s allergy season!

As this photo of two dogs and a stick shows, dogs love to be outside in the spring and summer. Pet owners, however, need to watch that they don't frolic near plants and shrubs that are prone to causing allergic reactions.
Photo by Slick |

You know how it feels when you develop a monster itch that feels like the Mosquito from the Black Lagoon has been dining on your back?

Or when you launch into a sneezing fit that could topple the Empire State Building?

As humans, we have things we can do: reach for a wad of tissues, bring out the Calamine lotion, pop an antihistamine — or just get away from whatever’s “bugging” us.

Unfortunately, our dogs don’t have that luxury. There are few things as sad as seeing your furry pal sneezing in uncontrollable misery, or discovering that he’s developed a raw, oozing sore because he’s been scratching the same spot for days. There may be nothing that he can do, but there are plenty of things that you can do to ease his suffering.

This is the time of year when allergies can wreak havoc in the lives of our canine companions, who love nothing better than charging into the nearest meadow or field of flowers, rolling around to their heart’s content, then dashing off to find another spot to investigate and experience. And every one of these springtime pursuits can trigger an allergic response.

You may not think of dogs as suffering from allergies, but they can and do — and those allergies range from insect bites to dust mites to grass, weed, and tree pollens and even food sensitivities.

So what, exactly, is an allergic reaction? Simply put, it’s the body’s way of responding to what it considers an “invader,” even if that threat is as mild as something like pollen. In some dogs, their immune systems simply can’t differentiate between a threat and a non-threat, so those systems go into overdrive to combat this outsider, and the result is an allergy attack.

Allergy symptoms in dogs are just as varied as they are in humans: sneezing, ragged and raspy breathing, swollen red eyes, runny nose, inflamed skin, constant itching, and in the case of food allergies, digestive distress. Your dog will probably never have all of these symptoms at once, but even one of them is enough to make her — and your! — life miserable. So let’s take a look at the causes, and what you can do.

Fleas can be a huge problem for our companion animals and their humans alike; in fact, saliva from just one flea bite can set off an allergic reaction in dogs that are hyper-sensitive. (And yes, it’s the saliva from the flea that creates the problem, not the bite itself.) If you see tiny black dots on your dog or his bedding, they’re actually flea droppings; but keep in mind that for every flea you see, there are likely hundreds of eggs and larvae in your home and yard. That means you need to treat your environment as well as your dog: wash his bedding and toys weekly until the infestation is over, vacuum often, and unless you’re opposed to their use, think about utilizing foggers or sprays. You also need to keep immature forms of fleas from developing: today’s flea-and-tick preventatives do an extremely effective job of reducing your dog’s risk.

If your pup is constantly rubbing or scratching her eyes, face, stomach, or feet, she’s probably suffering from what vets call atopy, or atopic dermatitis. Atopy is simply an allergic reaction to culprits like weeds, grasses, pollen, or anything your dog can inhale or absorb through the skin. You’ll probably notice it most in spring, when pollens are at their worst, and fall, when mold is often the villain. Persistent ear-scratching and foot-licking (or chewing) are also signs of atopy.

Because the dog ends up scratching or rubbing so relentlessly, he can quickly develop a bacterial infection known as a “hot spot,” which looks like a wet scab and which is most commonly the result of the itch-and-scratch cycle. Your vet can prescribe topical salves or corticosteroids to tame the itch, and antibiotics to cure the infection. Other treatments include antihistamines and immunosuppressants like cyclosporine. If the allergy turns out to be chronic, your vet may suggest long-term treatment rather than mere symptom relief.

Conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the lining of your dog’s eye, can also be caused by allergies; in addition to redness, you’ll also often see mucus or a watery eye discharge. Once again, you need to call your vet if you notice any of these symptoms, since if left untreated, conjunctivitis can lead to permanent vision loss.

Finally, if your fuzzy pal develops sneezing, wheezing, or a raspy cough that lasts more than a day or two, contact your vet: chances are it’s an allergic reaction, but it could also be something more serious like asthma, bronchitis or even heartworm.

Ongoing sneezing or a bloody nose can also be a sign that your dog has picked up that ubiquitous foothill hitchhiker, a foxtail. This can be a potentially dangerous situation, since foxtails are barbed so that they only move in one direction: further into your pet. If you suspect a foxtail-related issue, contact your vet right away, since once they’re embedded, these nasty weeds can cause abscesses, infection, tissue damage, or even death.

While allergies and problems can crop up, don’t be afraid to let your four-footed pal revel in our glorious springtime weather. Just stay alert for these allergy offenders, and you’ll both enjoy a sneeze — and wheeze-free — season!

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue .

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