Dogs With Atopic Dermatitis – What Does It Mean?


A devoted pet parent, pet store manager and animal shelter volunteer. Read more about me here.

Dog owners around the world know that our furry friends are much more like us than some might think. That goes both for the good and the bad.

Dogs can understand some words that we use when communicating with them, interpret our body language, find ways to please us and make us happy - and they can fall victim to some conditions that we, humans, suffer from, too.

One of those medical conditions is atopic dermatitis. If you suspect that your dog might be suffering from this disease, you'll need some information about the condition to be sure.

Of course, my advice is to always consult with your veterinarian before opting for any treatment on your own. 

With that said, let's talk about dogs with atopic dermatitis!

Atopic Dermatitis In Dogs

If you have this condition yourself, you know how annoying (to say the least) it can be, and you know what you need to do to prevent flare-ups.

But, if this is your first encounter with atopic dermatitis - and you are one of the lucky ones who don't want to scratch their skin off from time to time - you're probably confused.

Luckily, I'm here to clear things up and make it easier to understand what your dog is experiencing if they suffer from atopic dermatitis.

What Is Atopic Dermatitis?

So, what is atopic dermatitis? 

Well, basically, atopic dermatitis is a skin condition that causes the skin to become red, itchy, and irritated. It's a type of eczema - which might be a term more people have heard about - and the most common type, by the way.

When someone has atopic dermatitis, the immune system becomes overactive and, in turn, results in inflammation and irritation of the skin. And that causes damage to the skin's barrier - which is in charge of protecting the skin from outside damage.

Atopic dermatitis is extremely inconvenient and can also lead to other skin conditions, such as loss of fur and black spots, and secondary skin infections as a result of the compromised skin barrier.

A woman scratching her left forearm

It's mostly children that suffer from atopic dermatitis, but it can occur in adults, as well. Unlike an acute allergic reaction, it's a chronic condition with periods in which it calms down and periods in which it flares up.

It's still unknown what exactly causes atopic dermatitis, and there's no known cure for it - but many scientists and doctors have taken their turn in trying to figure it out.

Most of them agree that it has to do with the immune system. Some also believe that it's connected to liver function - but it hasn't been solidly proven.

Some people have experienced significant improvements in their eczema and atopic dermatitis flare-ups after implementing dietary changes. That has caused more people to opt for that type of treatment, in addition to different creams - as opposed to just using medical products to relieve the itchiness.

These characteristics explain why eczema is a very prevalent topic in many people's lives and why the medical community has been working on finding the cure more intently.

Canine Atopic Dermatitis

Now that you know what atopic dermatitis entails in humans, I can delve into more details about atopic dermatitis in dogs.

In the veterinary world, atopic dermatitis is defined as an allergic disease that can affect both cats and dogs. Much like with people, the cause is unknown - but the current theory most scientists agree on is the opinion that it's somewhat genetically predisposed.

What happens when your dog has atopic dermatitis?

Well, due to a damaged skin barrier, the bacteria and yeast that naturally live on the skin's surface and environmental allergens can penetrate the skin easier. That causes skin inflammation, itchiness, and potentially skin infection and secondary skin lesions.

As you can see, developing allergies and atopic dermatitis in dogs isn't just an issue in itself - but can be a trigger for other dermatological issues and cause more problems down the line.

Allergic Dermatitis

Another name for atopic dermatitis is allergic dermatitis. The reason it's also called this is the fact that allergens can also cause skin irritation.

That's where dogs and humans differ:

People show reactions to allergens through nasal symptoms or hives, whereas dogs react through the skin and gastrointestinal problems.

These problems can manifest in different ways, which is why it can be challenging to recognize that skin allergies cause them.

Some of them are characteristic of more health problems than just these - so it's always best to speak with your vet.

An old dog being examined by a vet

But, to make sure you have an idea of what you should be looking for, here's a list of symptoms caused by allergies:

  • Itching and chewing on the paws
  • Poor coat texture/hair length
  • Hotspots/self-mutilation
  • Flatulence
  • Diarrhea
  • Gastrointestinal pain/discomfort, etc.
  • Frequent ear infections
  • Blepharitis

When Does It Start?

In most cases, dogs will start to show allergic signs of canine atopic dermatitis at a young age - between 1 and 3 years old.

Since this is an inherited disease, atopic dogs are genetically predisposed to developing allergic symptoms due to continued exposure to allergens.

Breeds Prone to Atopic Dermatitis

It seems that genetics were kinder to some breeds than others. Here are some of the breeds that are more likely to develop atopic dermatitis:

  • Golden Retrievers
  • The majority of Terriers
  • Irish Setters
  • Dalmatians
  • Bulldogs
  • Old English Sheep Dogs

While it might be more likely for your dog's skin to become atopic if they belong to one of these breeds, it doesn't automatically mean that other breeds can't have it.

Like I said, even though clinical findings show that genetics contribute to this skin condition, we still don't know the full scope of causes behind it. That's why we can see atopic dermatitis occur in any breed.

Causes Of Allergic Dermatitis In Dogs

While we don't know what directly causes allergic dermatitis, we do know what triggers it. There are multiple triggers, including:

  1. Inhalant/contact allergy
  2. Environmental allergies
  3. Flea allergy
  4. Allergy to normal bacterial flora and yeast organisms that live on the skin
  5. Food allergy
  6. Thyroid disease (in some cases)

Clinical Signs: What To Look For?

If you think that your dog might be having a skin issue, aside from the symptoms I mentioned, there are a few other things you'll need to pay attention to here.

Since their skin is irritated and itchy, dogs will usually scratch it, lick it, chew it - you get the idea. The reason your dog might be licking its skin is that its saliva contains calming and antibacterial properties, which can relieve itchiness and discomfort.

Commonly affected areas that your dog most often scratches are ears, armpits, feet, flanks, groin, and so on. That could cause hair loss in the affected areas, as well as reddening and thickening of the skin.

Canine atopic dermatitis can have different effects on the quality of the skin, depending on the dog - some might get dry and flaky skin. In contrast, other dogs might experience excessive oiliness.

There's no rule as to how an allergic dogs' skin is going to react. Excessive oil production can result from irritation and is a way for skin to protect itself from damage and outside irritants.


I mentioned that different types of allergens could trigger allergic reactions in dogs. Now, I'll give you some additional info on each allergen - and how it works to cause a reaction in allergic dogs.

Food Allergies

Aside from inhalant and contact allergies, food allergies are probably the most well-known type of allergies.

If your dog has been itching and showing the signs mentioned above, it might be allergic to an ingredient found in its food.

That might be surprising, especially if your dog has been eating the same food for a long time. How come your pup has never shown signs before?

Well, the answer is pretty simple: 

Much like people, dogs can develop allergic symptoms and develop allergies throughout their lives. That means that what was once their favorite food might start causing them discomfort.

To be clear, this doesn't have to be the case - but it's something to keep in mind. Not knowing that this is a genuine possibility can prolong your pup's discomfort and delay the treatment process.

Another thing to note is that food allergens can be found in both high and low-quality food. That's because it has nothing to do with the quality - but rather the ingredient itself. 

The quality won't affect the severity of the allergic reaction in dogs diagnosed with allergies - and it won't delay the development of an allergy, either.

However, one thing that does have to do with the quality is that premium foods sometimes don't contain common filters, which often play a role in allergic reactions.

Inhalant And Contact Allergies

These two you must know about - especially since the number of people suffering from these allergies has been skyrocketing in the past years.

Not much is different when it comes to these environmental allergies between humans and dogs. In both cases, they're caused by environmental factors such as pollens of trees, grass, and weeds, as well as dust mites and molds.

Spotting these types of skin allergies is relatively easier than, say, food allergies. That's because it's tightly connected with the time of year or the season it's happening in most often.

If you've noticed your pup's showing any of the symptoms - watery eyes or runny nose, for example - we've discussed during the spring or summer months and not during the rest of the year, you might be dealing with environment-related allergic diseases.

Flea Allergies

In this case, the problem isn't within the flea itself but rather what's found in its saliva - the proteins.

An interesting fact about this type of allergy is that it's generally more likely to occur in dogs who are rarely exposed to fleas than those who are often in contact with them.

Also, just one bite can be responsible for a week-long reaction!

Staphylococcus Sensitivity

Here, you have a case of sensitivity to the bacteria that live on the skin. But, the thing with this condition is that it doesn't act alone. Studies show that it's a lot more likely to occur in conjunction with one of the previously mentioned types of allergies - food allergy, flea allergy, inhalant allergy, and the like - than on its own.

Additionally, this is a case in which hypothyroidism can also play a role.

Diagnosing Allergic Dermatitis

The most effective way of diagnosing these allergies is through allergy testing. 

There are numerous different methods to test allergens, with the blood test being the most common. 

Another common way of testing is through intradermal skin testing. First, a portion of the dog's skin is shaven. Then, a tiny amount of antigen is injected into a part of the shaven skin in a specific order and pattern. After an hour or so, the skin's examined to determine whether any have caused a reaction.

As for food allergies, dietary elimination trials are generally the go-to method.

Allergy testing is done to diagnose properly and find the best possible treatment for atopic dogs.

You can also test your dog at home. I highly recommend this home kit allergy test - the 5Strands Pet 335 Test for Dogs.

Canine Atopic Dermatitis: Treatment Options

Dealing with atopic dermatitis can be exasperating and uncomfortable, to say the least.

Even though there isn't a cure, there are ways to help your beloved dog cope with the discomfort caused by canine atopic dermatitis.

Depending on what triggers flare-ups (which allergy, that is), how severe the irritation and clinical signs are, and whether there are secondary infections and other conditions caused by canine atopic dermatitis, the treatment might include the following:


Even though most medications intended for human use can be harmful to dogs, there are also ones that can be very beneficial. And one of those is antihistamines.

The truth about using antihistamines for allergic skin disease in dogs is that it's not 100% effective. It's not even 50% effective:

Only about 1/3 of dog owners that tried using them on their dogs have reported good results.

That doesn't mean you should write this treatment off just yet, though. There are multiple kinds of antihistamines, and you should try at least three before giving up on these meds.

Some of the most commonly used antihistamines for dogs are Benadryl, Claritin, Atarax, Zyrtec, Chlortrimeton, and Clemastine.

Most vets agree that you shouldn't bypass antihistamines, regardless of the possibility of them not working. That's because even with that possibility, the results can be very beneficial should they work.

Aside from that, the side effects of antihistamines are negligible, and the medication is generally inexpensive, which makes it accessible to many.

Medicated Baths

Since atopic patients experience symptoms on their skin, there have been products - medicated shampoos - specifically aimed at soothing skin allergies.

In addition, giving your pet more frequent baths (once a week to once every two weeks) can help remove allergens from their skin and coat. That can prevent an allergic reaction caused by allergens found there altogether.

A golden retriever getting a bath

In normal conditions, and for dogs with healthy skin, it's recommended that they aren't bathed too frequently since that can strip them of their natural oils meant to protect their skin from outside damage.

However, when it comes to canine atopic dermatitis, these medicated shampoos are specifically formulated to calm the skin without overly stripping it, even with frequent use.

There are also specific techniques for applying the rinse after shampooing to prevent drying the skin out.

Antibiotics And Antifungal Medications

Vets prescribe the use of antibiotics in cases where secondary skin infections, ear infections, and skin lesions have occurred. And in cases of secondary yeast infections, antifungal medication is recommended.

Flea Control

A puppy wearing a medical collar

In case your dog has flea allergy dermatitis, you must introduce flea control. There are a couple of options, such as Frontline (a liquid applied onto the dog's skin) and Advantage or other flea and tick collars (they're in direct contact with the dog's skin and repel parasites).

Dietary Change

In case your dog is suffering from food-induced allergic dermatitis, there might be a chance to keep this condition under control completely with a simple dietary change.

Hypoallergenic Diet

We know that allergies develop by way of exposure. So, hypoallergenic diets aim to introduce the same nutrients that your dog needs, but in the form of foods that they had never had before.

Once diagnostic allergy testing is done, you'll know which foods to steer clear of in the future. But, until then, the best decision would be to avoid dairy, beef, and wheat since they're responsible for about 90% of food allergies.

There's a possibility that switching regular store-bought food for hypoallergenic store-bought food could have a positive effect on your dog.

However, there are some cases of canine atopic dermatitis in which the only option is homemade food. If that's the case, your vet should help you make a plan for this diet.

A dog eating meat

The problem with this diet is that it can get pretty expensive since the recommended novel protein sources are duck and kangaroo meat. That said, they're not the only source; eggs and certain types of fish can be used, as well.

To help your pet with this diet, you need to be persistent - and be wary of what ingredients are found in the food you give them.

Whatever you choose as the new source of nutrients, you first need to conduct a diet trial and see if these ingredients are a good choice for your pup.

Food allergies are one thing, but food sensitivity is another:

Your dog can be allergic to certain foods, but others might not feel good for their stomach.

So, a diet trial is when you will follow the way your dog reacts to new food and determine whether it will be a good substitute.

Be wary, though, since many dogs react with a change in the stool when their food is switched. So, don't automatically think that it's a wrong choice if your dog gets diarrhea or a softer stool for a couple of days while transitioning.

Of course, if the stomach issues continue for a prolonged period, stop feeding your dog the food and contact your vet.

Hydrolyzed Protein Diets

The goal is to use a protein source that has synthetically been reduced to small bits. 

Why would this help, you may be wondering?

Some veterinary medicine experts believe that if these fragments of protein are small enough, the immune system won't recognize them and trigger an immune response, resulting in an allergy.

Corticosteroids And Immunosuppressive Agents

The main component of corticosteroids is cortisone. Products with this ingredient are used to help calm the skin and stop itching by reducing inflammation.

However, while these meds have their benefits, they also bear their side effects. Some of the most common ones are increased thirst and appetite, increased need to urinate, and some behavioral changes.

Long-term use can lead to diabetes and decreased resistance to infection. That's the tricky part:

Sometimes, long-term use is the only way to help a dog deal with canine atopic dermatitis. However, this should only be the last resort.

To avoid or minimize side effects, you need to implement these meds appropriately, the way your vet has instructed you to.

Typically, veterinarians reach for corticosteroids when the allergy season is short, the required dose is small, or if it's absolutely necessary to relieve a dog in extreme discomfort.

Topical treatments of corticosteroids can also help if the reaction is localized in a relatively small part of the skin. Still, it needs to be used carefully - and only for a limited amount of time.

Cyclosporine (Atopica) is a type of medication that works to reduce inflammation caused by allergies and calm the immune system of atopic dogs. The drawback of this medication is that its pricing can be prohibitive for dogs of larger breeds.

Immunotherapy (Hypo-Sensitization)

Immunotherapy is used in the form of allergy injections or allergy shots. These are generally very safe, and many people - and dogs - have found them highly beneficial.

The only drawback is that they take time to start working. Usually, it can take between six to twelve months to see significant improvements.

Once the specific allergy has been identified, allergen-specific immunotherapy is produced for the dog in question. That's when therapy starts.

A dog getting a shot at a vet

Allergy shots are given to the dog over several weeks or months until they build up immunity to the allergen. After that, there might be an occasional "booster dose" necessary to maintain immunity.

Environmental Control

Environmental skin allergies are triggered by coming in contact with the allergen.

If you know which allergens trigger your dog's immune system, they should be avoided to prevent an allergic reaction. Even if you're treating your dog with one of the options available, lowering the exposure is one of the best ways to relieve symptoms.

There are many environmental allergens, so the ways to control them will differ.

If your dog is allergic to molds, you can use dehumidifiers or place active charcoal on top of exposed dirt of houseplants.

When it comes to dust, house dust mites, pollens, air cleaners with a HEPA filter will be your dog's best friend in fighting airborne allergens. During the summer month, AC can help in reducing exposure since windows remain closed while it's on.

Thyroid Medication

The endocrine system is responsible for many functions of the body through many different glands. And the thyroid gland is one of the most critical parts of the endocrine system.

Problems with the thyroid gland can manifest in many ways, one of which is through hair and skin. Hypothyroidism can cause hair loss, dull and brittle hair, oily or dry skin, and the like.

You can find out if there are any thyroid problems through a blood test; most vets will often perform the baseline TSH, T3, and T4 tests.


Canine allergic dermatitis can be confusing for the owner and uncomfortable for the dog. We, as owners, want to relieve our beloved pets of any discomfort and pain, so it's only normal that you're looking for ways to do so.

On that note, I hope that I've given you the information that you needed to help you get a better idea of whether your dog might be suffering from canine atopic dermatitis. 

And to sum everything up, here's a brief run-through of everything we've discussed in this article:

Atopic dermatitis is a skin condition in which the immune system becomes overactive and damages the skin barrier responsible for protecting the skin.

The cause is unknown, although we do know that it partly has to do with genetics. There's no definite cure, but rather ways of keeping it at bay and perhaps preventing flare-ups. 

In people, it's mostly children that are affected, but adults can have it, too.

As far as atopic dermatitis in dogs - or canine allergic dermatitis - goes, the problem is pretty much the same.

In this case, there's a possibility for skin infections, atopic skin lesions, secondary infection, as well as yeast infections.

Again, while we don't know the cause, we know that atopic dermatitis in dogs can be triggered by many things, such as food allergies, environmental allergens, allergies to the bacteria and yeast that live on the skin, and thyroid disease.

Atopic dermatitis in dogs can be treated in several different ways, based on the cause and the severity of the clinical signs. Some of the common treatments include medicated baths, antihistamines, corticosteroids, flea control, dietary change, environmental control, thyroid medication, and so on.

Here's a crucial reminder - always consult with your vet. Some of the symptoms might also point to other health conditions, so it's best to have your pup checked out by a professional.

Taking care of dogs diagnosed with canine atopic dermatitis can be challenging - but there's some good news: 

It's possible to manage these symptoms and make sure that our furry friends live life as carefree as possible.

Now that you have the essential info on atopic dermatitis in dogs, you can take the next step - helping your beloved pet. 

I wish you both success in future treatment - and many fun times ahead!

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About the Author

A devoted pet parent to two lovely creatures – Charlie the Cat and Jimmy the Dog – a full-time assistant pet store manager, and an animal shelter volunteer. I've gathered knowledge about pets for almost a decade, and it all started in a small store called Jack's Pets.

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