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Study links skin allergies in dogs to problem behaviors

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Did you ever have an itch that drove you crazy?

And the stress just seems to make it itch more. Turns out it’s the same for dogs, too.

The Itchy Dog Project is an online study launched by researchers at the University of Nottingham’s (UN) School of Veterinary Medicine in 2017 to study the possible genetic and environmental causes of canine atopic dermatitis. Around 10% of all dogs suffer from skin allergies. Those allergies can have a big impact on both their lives and on the lives of their owners.

The survey was originally aimed at people who own Labrador and golden retrievers, but after they were swamped by responses from more than 4,000 dog owners, the researchers broadened the survey to include all breeds.

Corresponding author Naomi Harvey, PhD, a researcher at UN’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, said: “[We] had a fantastic response from golden retriever and Labrador owners on our Itchy Dog Project website but [then we wanted] to identify any similarities or differences in the signs of atopic dermatitis between different breeds.”

The researchers published the results of the survey in a paper last month. They found that the severity of the itch in dogs with atopic dermatitis was directly linked to more frequent problem behaviors—such as mounting, chewing, hyperactivity, eating feces, begging for and stealing food, excitability, attention seeking, and excessive grooming—which could suggest a link between the severity of the itching and psychological stress in dogs suffering from atopic dermatitis.

“The survey results so far tell us that the most common behavioral signs of the problem are scratching, paw licking or chewing, chewing other areas of their body and rubbing their face and muzzle,” Harvey said. “These signs were reported in dogs who had been diagnosed with skin allergies and skin infections but did not occur in dogs with no skin problems. This suggests that if [a] dog is displaying any of these symptoms, they’re likely to have some form of skin problem.”

Other signs of allergies such as sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes were only reported in between 10% and 20% of dogs who had diagnosed allergies or other skin conditions, and were rarely seen in dogs with no history of skin issues. Dogs with skin allergies were most likely to be affected on their ears, paws, armpits, and groin areas.

Harvey also noted that the dogs who scratched less severely tended to have their conditions managed without the use of medications through a combination of management strategies including soothing, nonmedicated topical treatments, fatty acid supplements, and bathing or wiping down, especially after walks and diet changes for dogs with food sensitivities.

According to the paper, “Given the large body of evidence demonstrating the impact of stress on skin barrier function, and the increased stress reported by human patients with atopic dermatitis it is plausible that psychological stress experienced by dogs with canine atopic dermatitis could prolong and exacerbate allergic flares.”

Hardly anything will stress you out more than an itch you can’t scratch.

Photo credit: © iStock/RyanJLane