For the longest time, our dog Grant had this thing about the dew claws on his front legs. At certain times during the year, he’d start nibbling away at them almost constantly. We applied creams, sprays and bitter-yuck remedies… all to no avail. We carefully checked around the claws, under the claws and on the legs themselves. A trip to the vet revealed no specific health issues, except for some superficial redness due to Grant’s manic chewing. Then, finally, we put it together: Grant’s dew claw dabbling coincided with the onset of his seasonal allergies.
In humans, familiar allergy symptoms often include sneezing, itchy eyes and stuffy noses. But for years, well-known holistic veterinarians like Dr. Karen Becker and Dr. Richard Pitcairn have reminded pet parents that canine allergies may manifest themselves through skin and/or ear issues. These topical, symptomatic reactions are typically termed allergic dermatitis — i.e., inflammation or generalized irritation of the skin.
Remember that “allergy season” can occur at different times of the year, depending on the dog. Our hound mix Maizy, for example, gets incredibly itchy right around Indian summer; but she’s perfectly fine by late fall. Grant seems especially reactive during the spring. And other pups may experience no seasonal changes whatsoever — yet exhibit sensitivity to something in their home environment or to an ingredient in their food.
Most pet parents are aware that mainstream veterinary science tends to treat recurrent or worsening allergies with antihistamines, anti-inflammatories and even powerful corticosteroids. While this approach can certainly help to break the cycle of itchiness or irritation, it may not fully address the underlying cause.
Perhaps more importantly, continued use of these drugs over time can potentially produce a host of undesirable side effects that may lead to an erosion of overall wellness. So it makes sense to consider some natural, proactive strategies for addressing animal allergies. You can often take at-home steps that help eliminate triggers and support the immune system. Here are some to consider:
1. Evaluate your dog’s immunity
In his Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, Dr. Pitcairn explains that seasonal allergies are an immune system response. They manifest when your dog develops a sensitivity to something that’s been encountered, consumed or absorbed from the surrounding environment. So one of the most straightforward ways to reduce allergic response is by minimizing exposure to substances that tend to overstimulate the immune system.
Many drugs fall into this category, and yearly vaccines are also an immune system stimulant. Talk with your vet about less-frequent vaccination options that still offer protection. Several common vaccines, such as the rabies vaccine, are available in a three-year formulation. You can also ask your vet about titers, which measure canine immunity to certain diseases. This information can help determine whether vaccination is actually necessary.
2. Adjust their diet
In her book Canine Nutrigenomics, Dr. W. Jean Dodds notes that canines don’t have a specific, minimum dietary requirement for carbohydrates. This doesn’t mean you need to eliminate carbohydrates entirely. But it’s worth noting that especially high-carb diets tend to overload your pup’s system, thereby aggravating the inflammatory response associated with allergies.
Here’s what you can do:
- Read food labels, and minimize or eliminate white potatoes and grains. Carbohydrates like these can fuel both inflammation and yeast — the latter of which may cause secondary itchiness and irritation on top of an existing allergy.
- Add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of coconut oil to your dog’s daily diet. The lauric acid can help inhibit yeast production.
- Add 1 daily teaspoonful of fish oil, which is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. These can help decrease systemic inflammation. Dr. Pitcairn’s book notes that some of the best sources include salmon, sardine, krill and anchovy oils. Simply feeding a half-sardine daily makes for a fun, healthy snack (just ask Maizy). You can also try plant-based sources such as flax, hemp or borage oils. Many dogs don’t efficiently convert these actual seeds to their most useful structural component, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The oil version can sometimes help ease assimilation.
3. Investigate Chinese principles
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is built around dietary principles that characterize food energies as “cold,” “neutral” or “hot.” So for example, during intervals of more intense allergic inflammation, TCM would advise you to avoid foods and proteins on the “hotter” end of the dietary spectrum. These include beef, chicken and lamb. A better choice would be “cooling” proteins, such as rabbit, bison and egg whites. Find a licensed TCM practitioner to obtain additional insights. The National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine can help.
4. Regulate allergens
Ever stop to think that every time your head out for a walk or romp, your dog’s fur and paws collect and carry literally millions of inflammation-causing allergens?
Try these quick, at-home fixes:
- Set up a simple foot soak basin near your front door. Quickly dunking each paw can dramatically reduce the number of allergens your dog tracks into your home. Use fresh, plain water with a teaspoon of Epsom salt; or buy a bottle of iodine and add 1 teaspoon per 5 cups of water. Short on time? Dampen a clean rag with this solution and gently wipe each paw.
- Remove allergens and relive itching by bathing your dog every other week. Choose a gentle, organic baby shampoo product and add 2 to 3 drops of inflammation-reducing coconut oil to the bottle. You can also try an enzyme-based shampoo like Zymox. In addition, use a damp washcloth (or hypo-allergenic pet wipe) to wipe down fur at least once per day.
- Saturate a gauze pad with plain saline solution and wipe around your dog’s eyes once daily. I’ve found that this can greatly relieve itchy eyes during peak allergy intervals.
5. Update your cleaning routine
Switch from chemical-based household cleaners to non-toxic cleaning products. And did you know that constant vacuuming may actually kick up allergens? Instead, consider investing in an air purifier or UV germicidal light that attaches to your air conditioner. We also like to slip inexpensive pillowcases over dogs beds and simply wash them once per week.
Do you have specific natural steps you’ve taken to help reduce your pet’s allergy symptoms? Share your insights here.