Help! My dog has allergies! What can I do?

Kristin ClarkGeneral HealthLeave a Comment

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Image credit: Bre Altherr

Merlin (American Pit Bull Terrier) enjoying springtime. Image credit: Bre Altherr

It’s springtime.  And for many of us, that means allergies.  But allergies don’t just affect people—they also affect our pets.  According to petinsurance.com, skin allergies are the second-most common reason people take their dogs to the vet (and the fifth-most common reason they take their cats).

Why do our pets suffer from allergies?  And how can we help them overcome these issues?  While this is a vast topic, this article will look at some of the basic reasons for allergies and talk about some of the things you can do to help your pet find relief.

What causes skin allergies

When an animal’s body is out of balance, it presents with different symptoms as a result of that imbalance.  Diarrhea, hot spots, itchiness, lethargy, are all signs that the body is out of balance.  Skin allergies, and all the itching that goes along with them, are not, in and of themselves, a disease.  They are a symptom of a body that is not in harmony.  They are indicators that your pet’s body has built up too many toxins and is frantically trying to rid itself of them. Because the skin is the largest eliminative organ, when the liver and kidneys are overloaded with toxins and the immune system is desperately working to bring everything back into balance, many toxins are forced out of the body through the skin.  This causes itching, hot spots, inflammation, and yeast infections, among other things.   As difficult as it is to see our beloved pets in discomfort, it is important to view these symptoms (often labeled as “allergies”) as clues that the body is out of balance.  Trying to suppress them without addressing the cause of the symptoms ensures that your dog or cat will never find true and long-lasting relief.

Allergies—in humans and in animals—occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to something in the body itself or in the environment.  This is crucial to understand.  In essence, the body’s overreaction is causing the problem; the problem is not caused by whatever is in the body or environment.  Let’s take a little closer look at this, because understanding this imbalance is key to understanding what causes these various symptoms.

The immune system, which is found throughout the body, includes Th1 cells and Th2 cells; these cells must be in balance or the whole system is thrown off.  For example, if Th2 becomes too prevalent, it will overproduce antibodies that attack things that are not normally considered threats.  Th2 is intended to trigger attacks on bacteria, viruses, and pathogens; when it is overabundant, it starts to trigger attacks on its own body and on normal species-appropriate foods.  Th1 and Th2 get out of balance when toxins (which can be pesticides, household cleaning products, innapropriate foods, heavy metals, vaccines, and so on) build up in the body faster than the body can get rid of them.  This imbalance weakens the immune system, and in this weakened state, it overreacts to what it perceives are foreign substances and releases histamines and antibodies normally used by the body to fight microbial invaders.  Often, the triggers for this reaction (the foreign substances) are inappropriate foods (such as kibble), pollens, dust, mold spores, or grass (many of the same things that trigger our allergies!).  Basically, the immune system may perceive any foreign substance, even if it is just a tiny particle, as something to defend against.  It then releases a flood of histamines and antibodies to attack the perceived threat, which triggers a host of symptoms, including itching, upset stomach, hot spots, runny eyes, red eyes, and so on.

Traditional approaches to “treating” allergies

Many times, when you take your dog or cat to a traditional veterinarian for allergy symptoms, they will tell you that the symptoms are caused by a food allergy, flea allergy, or some other environmental allergy.  They will often advise you to switch to a different protein source (rarely do they advocate that you switch to a SARF diet, however).  They treat the symptoms instead of addressing the root cause.  Because the root cause is not addressed, the symptoms come back over and over, and usually they get worse.  This is because the body builds up a resistance to the treatments that were suppressing the symptoms, so you must increase the frequency and/or the dosage.  And, to make matters worse, frequently the suggested remedies contribute to the problem.  For example, let’s look at steroid shots, which are given by many veterinarians to suppress the itching.  Your veterinarian may give a steroid shot, for example, of cortisone or prednisone.  These are immunosuppressants, which means that they suppress the immune system.  The immune system is overactive, but when it is suppressed, it can no longer do its job and keep the body healthy.  If the immune system is out of balance, your pet will never be able to achieve true health.  In addition, steroids can cause multiple side effects, such as increased thirst and urination, increased hunger, panting, general loss of energy, development or worsening of infections, vomiting, or nausea.

Veterinarians may also recommend and/or prescribe antihistamines, such as Benadryl.  Again, these act as a Band-Aid because they only address the symptom (itching, runny eyes, etc.) and not the actual cause of the problem.  And, if the body does not get back into balance, usually it will require higher and higher dosages to achieve relief.  Think of the Band-Aid solutions as putting a patch on a torn shirt sleeve.  The tear is still there, and eventually it will tear again, because the fabric is weak.  The patch did not inherently fix the shirt, it just provided a temporary solution.  This is exactly what the steroid shots and antihistamines do.

So how do we address allergies?

We have established that traditional “cures” for allergies don’t really fix the problem.  So what, then, will help? Remember that the body possesses the innate ability to heal itself—and actually, it is only the body that can truly heal itself. What we must do is give it the proper support to achieve balance again. Balance is achieved when the toxins are eliminated, the body is nourished properly, and all the systems are working in harmony. There are several steps to do this, and depending on the severity of your pet’s symptoms, you may have to provide them with a little additional support as they get back into balance. Remember, we are not looking to suppress the symptoms, we are looking to achieve total health. Once that is achieved, the symptoms will no longer be present because the body won’t be in a state of imbalance.

Image credit: Kristin Clark

Barkley in the begonias. Image credit: Kristin Clark

Our ultimate goal when faced with allergies is to remove the excess toxins as much as possible from our pet’s environment (and by environment, I am referring to both their external environment and their internal environment). The first step is to make sure that your dog is eating a balanced and varied species-appropriate raw food (SARF) diet. This goes a long way towards ridding their internal environment of toxins and revitalizing and balancing their immune system to clear out the toxins that they do encounter. This is because each meal will give them the nutrients they need to support health and balance, rather than adding to the toxic load (which is what processed dog food does). But it doesn’t stop with just switching them to a SARF diet. You also need to make sure that they are getting clean, fresh water. This means water that is fluoride- and chlorine-free. If you drink filtered water, give them filtered water too. Again, this ensures that they aren’t adding to the toxin load each time they drink.

In addition to providing them with a SARF diet and clean, fresh water, it is important to switch your household cleaners away from those that contain harsh chemicals. You should also stop using commercial flea and tick preventatives or heartworm medicine, and stop vaccinating to the maximum extent possible. Many flea and tick preventatives, such as Nexgard, actually contribute to itching (for example, take a look at the reported side effects of Nexgard: http://www.nexgardfordogs.com/Pages/default.aspx?gclid=CMOXo9_F29ICFRB4fgodHFkF_A). Note that later in this customized plan, I include information about natural alternatives to various conventional cleaners, vaccines, and preventatives.

Once you have switched your pet to a SARF diet and eliminated ongoing sources of toxins (such as fluoride in the water and flea/tick preventatives), it is important to start rebuilding your pet’s immune system. Remember, allergies are a reaction to the immune system being out of balance. The immune system needs to be rebuilt so that it will be able to respond appropriately to different foreign substances. To rebuild the immune system, provide whole, natural sources of probiotics, enzymes, immunomodulators, and essential fatty acids. Let’s briefly look at each of these to see what it does and where you can find it.

Because vaccines, antibiotics, and toxins wreak havoc on the “good” bacteria in your dog’s gut, it is important when rebuilding the immune system to reintroduce the good bacteria. This is done through probiotics. A healthy supply of probiotics allows the body to absorb vitamins, minerals, and nutrients much more readily. It also maintains a healthy balance of bacteria so that the “bad” bacteria don’t gain a foothold in the body. You may need to supplement with probiotics, particularly if your dog has been on a processed-food diet. To do this, feed green tripe and/or provide a supplement (one example is Pet Flora from Vitality Science).

Enzymes are another vital supplement, particularly if your dog is coming off kibble. Enzymes are responsible for many critical functions in the body, including detoxification and healing. They also allow the body to digest and absorb nutrients from food. They regulate thousands of functions, including thinking. If the body does not have enough enzymes, it will die. In the wild, carnivores naturally get enzymes from the meat and bones of their prey. If your pet has been on a kibble-based diet, its enzyme levels are undoubtedly very low, because the process of cooking and processing the kibble kills all the live enzymes that were in the meat. Green tripe is a great source of enzymes, as are other types of raw, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, pasture-raised, organic meat.

Immunomodulators can aid in regulating the immune system—essentially, strengthening a weak system or calming down an overactive system. This makes them especially helpful for animals that suffer from allergies, as those animals’ immune systems tend to overreact to any foreign substance that comes along. One great immunomodulator is bovine colostrum. Supplementing with this for a period of time will help the immune system become more balanced. You can find bovine colostrum online.

Essential fatty acids, especially omega-3 fatty acids, are incredibly good for the immune system. You may know that fatty acids are good for your pet’s skin and coat, but they play vital roles in other areas as well, such as joint health, control of inflammation, and allergy reduction. You should focus on supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids and avoid omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. Your pet can produce some fatty acids, but not all of them. The ones they must obtain through their diet because they cannot produce them themselves are called “essential” fatty acids. It is important to provide these to pets using a SARF diet, because cooking can destroy the essential fatty acids. Additionally, many commercial pet foods contain far greater amounts of omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Fish, such as sardines, contain a high amount of fatty acids. Interestingly, beef fat contains a low percentage of fatty acids. This is one reason why feeding variety in a SARF diet is so critical. It ensures that your pet gets the correct nutrients for optimal health. You can get whole, frozen sardines (wild caught) to feed to your dog. I give them as treats. They are small and the dogs love them. I generally feed them a couple of sardines a week to keep their coats healthy and to help supplement their omega-3 fatty acid levels.

In addition to supplements, you may want to consider using essential oils to help your animal’s allergies. Make sure that any essential oil you get is pure, therapeutic grade. It should not contain fillers or impure ingredients. I have successfully used lavender essential oil (from Young Living) to help my dog, Barkley, with his allergies. When his allergies are flaring (which does still happen infrequently), I put a few drops of lavender essential oil on my hands and then pet him. This simple approach generally calms down his itching and biting. I repeat as necessary. At the start of the allergy season, I did this about every 2 hours on the first day I noticed lots of itching. The second day, he only needed an application in the morning and the evening. On the third day, he only needed one application. Since then, he has only needed one application total. You can experiment with different types of essential oils to find out what blend works best for your pet.

In addition to essential oils, you may also want to try coconut oil. Make sure it is unrefined, pure, and organic. You can apply it topically to the areas where your dog is itching, and you can also feed it to them. I have consistently found that it is a great balm to help soothe the skin when applied topically. I also feed it (in a large, heaping spoonful or two) when my dog’s symptoms are really flaring up to help soothe from the inside out. I stop feeding it when the allergies seem to calm down.

If your dog is really itchy on her chest, upper part of her legs, or her sides, consider getting a t-shirt to stop her from being able to chew and scratch so much. Sometimes, the chewing and licking and scratching can cause the skin to become more inflamed, leading to a vicious cycle where they get itchier the more they itch. You can use an old t-shirt for a human, or one that’s designed for dogs, to help prevent the scratching and biting from causing damage and making things worse. Pick a t-shirt that you don’t mind getting ripped, and leave it on as needed. I have used this to great effect with my dog during some of his flare-ups, and I have also seen it used with remarkable results with other dogs. It does seem to work best when the t-shirt is designed for a dog and fits properly. You want it snug but not overly tight or binding.

Acupuncture has been shown to be helpful to some dogs with allergies. If you want to explore this route, go to http://www.aava.org/ to find a veterinary acupuncturist.

Acupressure may also be helpful. You can find a practitioner by going to http://www.nbcaam.org/member-listing.

Finally, remember to keep a positive attitude even though your pet is experiencing allergies. They pick up on our emotions, and when we feel sad or frustrated or disappointed, even if it’s because we are sad that they are in discomfort, it can depress their energy and their immune system and slow down their healing. Remember that their symptoms are a clue that something is out of balance, and greet the journey to true health with joy. As they become healthier, the symptoms will begin to subside, and real health will be achieved.

Woman hugging dog at beach

Woman hugging dog at beach

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