Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs

dermatitis in dogs
A young Pit Bull puppy scratching an itch. Intentional motion blur to show action.

Atopic dermatitis is as an allergic skin disease caused by exposure to allergens inhaled or absorbed through the skin.  It is quite common and usually begins in dogs that are one to three years old.  A dog can have an allergic reaction when exposed to allergens in the house, such as dust mites.  These tiny creatures live in carpet, bedding, pillows and furniture and feed on the scales of skin that fall from both people and animals.  They leave half-digested food, digested enzymes and fecal matter that contain the allergens that lead to atopic dermatitis in dogs.  The most susceptible breeds include:

  • Boxers
  • Bulldogs
  • Dalmatians
  • English Setters
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Irish Setters
  • West Highland White Terriers
  • Wire Fox Terriers
  • Lhasa Apsos
  • Mixed breeds

Dogs that live outside most of the time can become allergic to pollen from trees, grass and other plants.  Allergic signs may first appear in the late summer or early fall, and dogs living inside can also react to indoor pollutants and irritants, making allergies last year-round.  Initially, the skin looks normal and the dog may begin scratching the ears and underside of the body.  The itching is often accompanied by:

  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Paw licking
  • Sneezing

Atopic dermatitis is difficult to distinguish from allergic reactions to fleas or even food allergies; however a diagnosis can be determined based on previous history, the location of any skin lesions and the time of year.  To determine the best course of treatment, your veterinarian will do skin scrapings, fungus and bacteria cultures, skin biopsy and make recommendations for a new diet.

You must do all you can to eliminate fleas, because dogs with atopic disease are highly allergic to them, making their condition much worse and requiring more complicated treatments.


When it comes to treatment, the first step is to help reduce the constant scratching that can occur, which worsens their condition.  Here are some practical tips and suggestions that will make all the difference in the life of your dog:

  1. When your dog walks in from outside, take a damp towel and wipe their fur down to remove allergens and pollen that may be lingering on their coat.
  2. Check with your veterinarian for an antihistamine to help control the scratching and itching.
  3. There are some anti-itch drugs like Corticosteroids that are effective but can have some serious side effects, so make sure you use them intermittently and in a low dosage.
  4. Local areas of itching respond well to topical anesthetic preparations.
  5. Many dogs produce consistently good results with Omega 3 essential fatty acids.
  6. Rehydrate the skin with rehydrating shampoos that also work well to fight any type of bacterial infection.

Allergy shots are required periodically during certain times of the year when allergens run high. Testing the skin for specific allergens offers effective therapy that desensitizes your dog to these irritants through a series of injections that may last over a period of 9-12 months.  When it comes to diet, look for a high-quality dog food that does not contain any grains.  Just like people, dogs can develop allergic reactions to gluten found in wheat, which can cause all sorts of health problems, including skin allergies.


The dam and sire that have atopic disease can pass this on to their offspring and will often show signs of skin allergies.  When dogs that are unaffected by atopic dermatitis breed, the incidence of this disease still only drops by approximately 10%, plus it is difficult to identify an atopic dog in the first place.  We need to work with our veterinarians to do all we can to prevent the incidence of this aggravating, dreadful disease.

Reviewed and Approved by Dr. David L. Roberts, DVM

Photo:  Courtesy of donnierayjones via Flickr (CC by 2.0)


Sherry is a Nutritionist, Writer, National Speaker, Ghostwriter of books for Natural Medicine Doctors and an Author of 2 healthy cookbooks. She is a Nationally Certified Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer in Pilates, Yoga, Body Pump, STEP and Aerobics with over 20 years experience. She served as the On-Air Nutritionist for QVC television in the United States and the UK and hosted her own weekly “Healthy Living” segments for PBS. Sherry is passionate about helping animals and worked with “Helping All Animals” in Palm Springs, CA. in their rescue efforts, and is a member of the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States. Her experience working as a Veterinarian’s Assistant for many years’ aids in her passion for helping animals lead healthy and happy lives. For more information on Sherry, visit or write to Sherry at - call 517.899.1451