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5 Common Signs of Skin Allergies in Dogs and Cats: What Every Pet Owner Should Know

  1. Scratching- The most obvious sign of skin allergies. Scratching may manifest in different locations for each pet but the ears, neck, and trunk are common locations. Frequent scratching can result in trauma to the skin. 

  2. Licking/Chewing- Paw licking is a common sign of skin allergies in dogs while generalized overgrooming is more common in cats. Severe paw licking may even lead to “pododermatitis” which is inflammation and possibly infection of the paws. 

  3. Fur loss- This can look like diffuse fur thinning or focal bald spots. It is frequently worsened by overgrooming and scratching.

  4. Skin lesions- Allergies weaken the skin barrier and make the skin more susceptible to infection. Sometimes a skin infection, hot spot, bumps, or dandruff are the first signs of skin allergies.

  5. Headshaking- This behavior is due to itchiness or discomfort of the ears. It is frequently accompanied by an ear infection which can be secondary to skin allergies.


Allergic skin disease is typically caused by fleas, food, environmental allergies, or a combination of these categories.


Fleas allergies are largely underestimated but easily preventable. Itchiness of the hind end and tail is a classic sign of a flea infestation but this small pest can be hard to find in a dense coat. All pets in the home (including indoor cats!) should be treated with a reputable flea prevention to decrease risk of infestation. Some animals are so sensitive that one flea bite can cause full body itchiness and inflammation. 


Environmental allergies (Atopic Dermatitis) are very common and frequently “flare” seasonally. It is challenging to diagnose the allergen responsible for skin allergies. There are “intradermal skin tests” performed by Veterinary Dermatology Specialists that may help to identify the allergen at fault but, for the most part, treating the symptoms is more important.  Treatment for mild cases includes barrier support, supplements, vitamins, steroids, and antihistamines. However, for dogs, we frequently turn to newer medications such as Apoquel and Cytopoint for stronger control of itchiness. 


Apoquel is a Janus Kinase inhibitor, meaning it stops the itch earlier on in the process than antihistamines. This oral medication is effective at preventing itchiness in about 70% of dogs and can be used both short and long-term in dogs with environmental skin allergies.


Cytopoint is the newest therapy for atopy in dogs. It is a synthetic dog antibody that targets IL-31, which is a molecule necessary for the “itch and inflammation” pathway in allergies. It is administered as an injection every 4-8 weeks as needed and is safe for dogs of all ages. 


Food allergies are overall very rare but should be considered in any itchy pet. The most common allergens are protein sources. A food trial is the only way to test for food allergy. This is done by feeding either a home-cooked or prescription diet as the ONLY source of food for 8-12 weeks (home-cooked meals not recommended for cats). 


Skin conditions are the most common reason pets are brought to the vet. Don’t miss these five signs of skin allergies that can be easily dismissed as “normal” or “behavioral”. Treating allergies is essential to preventing secondary skin infections as well as keeping your pet comfortable. Talk to your vet for more information on diagnostic and treatment options.


Written by Dr. Leah Tassoni

Associate Veterinarian


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