In my house, we have a heart for problem dogs. I certainly don’t mean that we view our dogs as a “problem” — simply that they’ve been mistreated or neglected in a way that’s resulted in some problematic behavior. Since our early days of working with severely abused rescues, we’ve come to expect these issues. So our recovery “team” includes skilled animal behaviorists and some very dedicated veterinarians.
But in recent years, we’ve also added a holistic nutritionist to the mix. I started noticing that many of our pups would tend toward food allergies and compromised immunity — possibly resulting from too many years of a poor or inconsistent diet. Though to be fair, I’ve seen plenty of similar issues in non-rescues, too. It certainly makes sense that certain canines (like certain humans) may just be a bit more sensitive than others.
Our Maizy is a prime example. Soulful, intuitive, and winsomely shy, this sweet girl spent the early part of her life confined to a puppy mill cage. Maizy wouldn’t hurt a fly — but but we quickly learned that she can do herself some serious damage when her itchy, annual bumper crop of hot spots act up in the fall.
Any pet parent who cares for an allergic pup knows that it can really put a damper on your daily lifestyle. The cones, the creams, the clouded antihistamine haze, the self-harming behaviors that often kick in the moment you turn your back. With Maizy, the tiniest hot spot can quickly bloom into an angry brushfire that leaves her chewing and clawing maniacally.
We’ve tried nearly every remedy — and while I’m not professing to offer any guaranteed cures, I do want to share the trial-and-error ways we’ve developed over time to help Maizy. I’ve also included personal observations about what’s worked best in our case when it comes to dealing with an itchy dog.
Does your dog smell like a big, fluffy corn chip? Close your eyes, take a quick whiff, and consider. Our Maizy normally exudes this faint aroma — and according to our animal nutritionist, that “snack chippy” smell often signals skin-level yeast overgrowth. Some pets naturally tend toward this condition, and others attain it as the result of a carb-heavy diet (aka the “constant kibble and crunchy cookie” regimen).
Yeast overgrowth on the skin can lead to an itchy dog with dry, scaly, irritated patches; even fungal infections. We’ve helped Maizy achieve a degree of itch relief by calibrating her carb intake, then subbing in fresh, human-grade protein every day. We feed her limited-ingredient Zignature Duck Formula Kibble as a base, then top it off with supplemental veggies and a specific amount of ground turkey or duck depending on her symptoms. Certainly, there are some very good low-carb/no-carb prepared dog food brands available, but we prefer to customize Maizy’s diet as her seasonal symptoms ebb and flow. This allows us to vary proportions and gauge how she’s responding. A word of caution, though: If you opt to prepare your own pet food, it’s always smart to consult with a pet nutritionist who can ensure you’re including the proper percentage of fats, minerals and nutrients.
Speaking of proteins, they’re not all created equal — especially if you follow the philosophies of Chinese medicine. Some are classified as “warming,” others “cooling.” Proteins like duck, rabbit, or fish are generally considered cooling, and, according to Chinese theory, are the most healing for dogs who suffer from allergies. In contrast, proteins like lamb or venison are considered the hottest proteins. These can sometimes act like kerosene on a fire when it comes to aggravating allergic flare-ups.
But also remember that grains themselves have different characteristics. Corn and oats tend to be considered “bad guys” when it comes to triggering canine food allergies. Starchy binders like white potato can spike insulin and cause a host of complications, too. That’s why we mainly stick with foods that use “alternative” carb binders such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, green peas, or chickpeas. These are more novel to a dog’s system, not necessarily converted to sugar as quickly, and often less likely to cause sensitivities.
Vets and animal nutritionists continue to remind us that the digestive system (the “gut”) has a tremendous impact on the body’s overall immune system. So we like to supplement Maizy’s daily diet with a pet-specific probiotic and plant-based enzyme powder called “Digest-All Plus” by Wholistic Pet. We just sprinkle about a half-teaspoon over her morning meal. In addition, we add about a teaspoon of Grizzly Salmon Oil for dogs, half a teaspoon of coconut oil, plus another teaspoon of organic ground flaxseed. This is a great way to include a boost of calming Omega-3s, which can help soothe our itchy dog’s skin and coat problems.
Human doctors often advise surgical or arthritis patients to “stay ahead of the pain” with specific, timed medication doses. In much the same way, Maizy’s vet advocates “staying ahead of the itch” with a low-dose antihistamine at regular intervals. Depending upon the severity level of Maizy’s seasonal allergies, this sometimes works wonderfully… and sometimes not at all. We started her out on Benadryl, which is fairly safe but can cause considerable drowsiness.
Currently, we find that a very small dose of the prescription antihistamine Hydroxyzine is a bit more effective at keeping her comfortable, calm and alert. I no longer use sustained regimens of prednisone with any of my pups, due to the high potential for long-term side effects — including immune system suppression, plus pronounced liver and kidney damage. However, this is a personal choice that should be discussed with a qualified veterinarian. In cases where a dog is unable to achieve relief any other way, it can sometimes be the only realistic option.
I haven’t really embraced the essential oil craze, but based on a decent amount of observational evidence, I’d say it’s certainly worth trying as a supportive approach (for both the dog and the frazzled human caregiver). If you prefer pre-packaged pet oils, it’s often safest to stick with established brands (such as Pampered Pet). However, here at my house we whip up our own — it’s easy, and I can monitor every ingredient with my own eyes!
One blend that’s been especially soothing for Maizy’s itchy skin is 2 tablespoons of almond or coconut oil plus 10 drops of lavender essential oil. We simply massage this mixture into minor skin irritations to help reduce the itch, kill bacteria and even soothe her anxiety.
Another incredibly beneficial oil is neem, which is a vegetable oil pressed from the fruits and seeds of a specific evergreen species. Neem has powerful antibacterial properties, but it’s normally far too strong to use by itself. So we always dilute neem at least 3:1 with another calming oil such as lavender, coconut, or cardamom, then gently spritz this mixture onto abraded areas once or twice daily.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of all things oil: Another oil-related option you can try is Lampe Berger, a scented line of air-purifying oils, which were originally developed for hospital use. These didn’t really ease Maizy’s allergy symptoms, but they’re quite calming and made the house smell fantastic.
Like many dogs, Maizy struggles with both food sensitivities and environmental allergies (the double whammy — yippee!). So we’ve explored numerous ways to avoid overtaxing her immune system. One approach that’s worked wonders is having our air ducts cleaned every few years. It’s amazing (in a fairly “ick” kind of way) to see how much dust and debris can accumulate deep inside a home’s ventilation system.
The last time we had a duct cleaning, we also decided to install a tiny APCO UV light. If you think about it, keeping windows shut for weeks and months at a time causes the same indoor air to circulate repeatedly. This means that accumulating mold, allergens and other contaminants can continue recirculating as well. According to the EPA, indoor air is an average of five times more polluted than outdoor air. APCO is a UV germicidal light that purifies indoor air without ozone or chemicals. Circulating air flows over the light apparatus, which reduces airborne pathogens like mold, bacteria, and viruses. We noticed fewer allergy symptoms in both our dogs (and in us) within the very first week of installation.
Do you struggle with ongoing canine allergies? What are some strategies that have worked best for you? Share your ideas and insights!
Read more about handling an itchy dog on Dogster.com:
About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.