Just Moved Our Allergic Dog to a New State

Elsie - watching us pack up the truck.

After 15+ years of living in the Mid-Atlantic, we made a big, big move and picked up the family  – Elsie, the cats, my toddler son and husband and moved to Tampa, Florida. Although it was a major – and I mean major – change in our lives, we’re loving our new location. But, I will say I was a bit nervous about moving our Boxer Elsie.

After several years of sickness, vet visits, and expensive medication, we had finally found the right solution to treat Elsie’s allergy symptoms: Allergy shots. I’ve written all about our allergy testing experience and our success with her shots. Once we started Elsie on allergy shots, she and we finally had our lives back.

But, the thing about allergy shots is that they are customized for your geography. The grasses, trees and outdoor allergens in Washington, DC are much different from the allergens in California – or in our case, Florida. We knew that moving here would potentially put her at risk for returning to pink paws, hair loss, raw skin, upset stomach and all of the other unpleasant allergy symptoms she had to deal with for so long.

I called our veterinary dermatologist before our move and explained our situation. I asked if there was anything preemptive that we could do to possibly prevent any issues she may have adjusting to the new environment. Unfortunately, the answer was no. But, they did say that many dogs adjust very well to moves – and that their office ships allergy shots to dogs who have moved all over the country. It all depends on the dog.

The good news is that we have been in Florida now for 4 months and Elsie has been doing great. In fact, we just experienced a couple of really intense weeks of heavy pollen and so far no flare-ups.

My fingers are crossed that this new move will be fine for Elsie’s allergies. So far she is loving the warmer weather. She was never much for snow. I’ll keep you posted on how things are going.

Dog Allergy Stories. Clayton, the American Pit Bull Terrier.

Clayton the American Pit Bull relaxing.
Clayton relaxing

Clayton, an American Pit Bull Terrier, was six weeks old when his owner Cassandra brought him home.  Cassandra, a Veterinary Technician, first  suspected that Clayton had allergies when he was four months old and developed Alopecia (a condition which causes hair loss) on his outer thighs.  Cassandra thought that Clayton had Demodex (parasitic mites that can cause hair loss in dogs), but his skin scrapes came out negative.

Shortly after the Alopecia started, Clayton began constantly scratching and chewing at his skin.  This frequent scratching caused the hair on his ears to fall out and the skin under his arms to bleed.  He chewed on his feet and gnawed at his tail from tip to rear. Cassandra placed Clayton on an antihistamine for a month, but found it provided no relief.

Cassandra then asked to be referred to a veterinary dermatologist.  Being in the veterinary field, Cassandra knew how difficult allergies could be for dogs and their owners and she wanted to get Clayton on the right treatment as soon as possible.

Clayton, wearing a t-shirt and socks to prevent chewing and scratching.
Clayton, wearing a t-shirt and socks to prevent chewing and scratching.

The veterinary dermatologist started Clayton on steroids, but the steroids did not end Clayton’s discomfort. For a while, Cassandra also had Clayton on Atopica, a drug designed for dog allergies, but it was also not effective in treating his condition. When the steroids and Atopica did not help, they started Clayton on a food elimination program to try to identify which foods he may be allergic to. They eventually found that Clayton was allergic to chicken, turkey, duck, beef, rabbit and fish. After trying different brands of food, Cassandra eventually found that Nutro’s limited ingredient Venison Meal and Brown Rice food worked. Clayton stopped scratching his ears and chewing on his tail.

Cassandra also made another important food allergy discovery. Many foods and medications contain gelatin, especially many medicine capsules. Gelatin is made from cow parts. Since Clayton and many other dogs are allergic to beef, they can have allergic reactions when they digest gelatin. Cassandra is careful now to avoid gelatins. If a medication is provided in a gelatin capsule, she first opens the capsule and sprinkles the powder on Clayton’s food. She also requests tablet forms of medication when available.

Clayton the pit bull showing hair loss on his ears.
Clayton showing hair loss on his ears.

In addition to food allergies, Clayton also has environmental allergies. Clayton had a skin test when he was seven months old. They found he was allergic to 70 of the 75 allergens, the top three being human dander, wool, and cat dander. He is now on weekly desensitization injections (allergy shots). To eliminate allergens in the home, Cassandra regularly shaves and bathes her cats. She also vacuums each day. Because her dogs sleep in her bed, Cassandra uses a special allergen detergent to wash her bedding.

In addition to his desensitization injections, Clayton receives weekly baths with a chlorhexidine shampoo. He also takes daily Zyrtec and Alaway eye drops. Although Cassandra has Clayton on small amounts of Prednisone, she is hoping to get him off of this steroid treatment soon. Cassandra also purchased a Lycra body suit from K9 Top Coat, which some dog owners use to protect their dog’s skin by reducing irritation.

Clayton the dog in a lycra body suit
Clayton in his new Lycra body suit.

Cassandra’s advice to other dog owners is to not give up. Eventually things will get better for you and your dog, but you will have to be willing to work for it. Think of it from your dog’s perspective, they are itching like crazy and can’t tell you what is making them itch. They need your help to make life more comfortable. Cassandra also recommends that if you find that your dog needs to be on a limited diet, don’t feel bad about not being able to feed them scraps or everyday treats. She suggests using your limited diet kibble as a treat. Your dog won’t know the difference and they’ll just be excited that you are giving them something to eat. Her final word of advice is to join a warehouse membership at a store like Costco or Sam’s Club. Benadryl, Zyrtec and other human medications used to treat dog allergies can be purchased much cheaper at these stores.

After months of trial and error, for the first time since he was a puppy, Clayton is starting to grow some hair on his ears. And, the skin on Clayton’s face and feet is no longer red and swollen. It is likely that Cassandra will always have to treat Clayton’s allergies, but through her efforts, she is giving him a much more comfortable quality of life.

Dog Allergy Testing and Allergy Shots

Dog Allergy ShotsWhen we first learned that our dog Elsie had allergies, I did some reading about allergy tests and allergy shots.  At the time, the allergy test seemed like an expensive option. I didn’t even know any humans who had been allergy tested – much less a dog.  It seemed like an outrageous expense to go to a pet dermatologist, have our dog tested for allergies and then give her an ongoing supply of shots.

We changed our attitude after two years of almost weekly vet visits and many thousands of dollars spent on various medications, antibiotics, ointments and sprays.  In reality, the one-time allergy test and dermatologist visit cost us less than most of our regular vet visits. And, most importantly, the regular allergy shots have almost completely eliminated Elsie’s allergy symptoms.  In the past two years, she has only had her annual vet visits.  No more rushing to the vet with ear infections, hair loss, diarrhea, and an endless list of other health problems. You name it, Elsie had it.  These allergy shots were our savior.

Unfortunately, if your dog has a flea or food allergy, allergy testing and allergy shots will not help.  This form of treatment is specifically designed to desensitize your dog to indoor and outdoor inhalant allergens (molds, pollens, dust, etc.) and contact allergens (wool, cotton, etc.).

I’ll explain how the allergy tests and allergy shots work.  This form of treatment will not be necessary for many allergic dogs, and may not be the best option for all owners either.  I’ll admit that allergy shots are a pretty big commitment.  You’ll likely be administering allergy shots to your dog for the rest of its life.  You’ll want to discuss this option with your veterinarian and your family to decide if this is the best option for you and your dog.

Allergy Testing
Before you start your dog on allergy shots, you’ll need to have your dog tested to determine which allergens your dog is allergic to.  There are two forms of tests available: blood tests and intradermal skin tests.

Blood Tests
With a blood test, blood will be drawn from your dog and your veterinarian will perform a test that checks for antigen-induced antibodies in the blood.  The benefit of a blood test is that it is often cheaper and easier to administer than a skin test.  In fact, most veterinarians can draw your dog’s blood and perform the test.  The drawback is that this test does not provide the same accuracy as the skin test.  If you are serious about starting your dog on allergy shots, it is recommended that you visit a veterinary dermatologist or other veterinary specialist who can perform the full skin test.

Intradermal Skin Tests
An intradermal skin test involves the injection of a small amount of antigen into your dog’s skin.  This procedure is most often performed by a veterinary dermatologist or pet allergy specialist. Here’s how the process works.

First, your dog will be administered a mild sedative, and a 4”x8” area on their side (near the armpit) will be shaved – so it is easy to see the skin.  Next, the Dr. will inject small doses of a wide variety of common, regional antigens into their skin.  Our dermatologist injects 62 different antigens.  When Elsie had this procedure, it looked like she had a little polka-dot tattoo under her arm for a couple of days. Each injection location is documented, so the Dr. will know exactly which antigen (or allergen) your dog is allergic to.

Within minutes, small red bumps will occur when there is a reaction to the antigen.  The Dr. will document this and then be able to provide you with a list of allergens that are affecting your dog.  They will then prescribe a custom vaccine (or allergy shot), based on the results of your test.  You can see an example of Elsie’s allergy test results below.

Dog Allergy Test Results
Elsie's Dog Allergy Test Results

I was amazed that this entire process took less than an hour. Elsie was tested and we learned exactly what she was allergic to in less than 50 minutes.  Not only was she allergic to house dust, four types of mold, and seven types of trees, grasses, and weeds but I was also surprised to learn that she was allergic to cotton and feathers.

When I asked how they knew what antigens to test her for, they said their tests include indoor antigens (like cotton and dust) as well as a number of regional grasses and trees.  They said that if we ever moved to a different climate, such as Texas or Arizona, we’d have to have her re-tested for a new variety of antigens.  So, depending on where you live, the allergens your dog is tested for may be quite different from Elsie’s test.

Allergy Shots – Hyposensitization

Once your dog has been allergy tested, you will move on to the allergy shot treatment.  Allergy shots, more officially known as hyposensitization, involve injecting your dog with small amounts of the allergens that were identified during their allergy test.  This type of therapy is designed to “reprogram” your dog’s immune system so that it becomes less reactive to these allergens.

When you first start this process, you will need to help your dog (and you!) to slowly adjust to the injections.  For the first month, the injections will be a very small amount and will take place every other day.  Then, depending on the severity of your dog’s allergies, their veterinarian will prescribe injections every 1-3 weeks.  If this form of treatment appears to be helping your dog, it will likely need to continue for the rest of your dog’s life.

Hyposensitization benefits 68%-85% of the dogs who are placed on this form of treatment.  You should not expect to see any significant improvement for the first 4-6 months of injections.  And, it may take as long as 12 months before the improvements are truly noticeable.  We started to notice improvements in Elsie’s skin and overall health in less than four months.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for us was learning to be confident when administering the shots.  Neither my husband nor I are medical professionals.  We were both concerned that we would “hurt” Elsie during the injections and cause her to be scared and traumatized – making the process all that much more difficult. However, over time, my husband has become the main “shot giver” in the family and has become quite skilled and proficient.  His technique is to be calm and quick, so as not to make Elsie nervous. Then, he follows with a dog treat – which always makes these procedures much more tolerable.

We keep a regular supply of syringes, which are provided by our dermatologist office along with the vaccine.  The vaccine is kept in our refrigerator, never frozen, just kept cool.

Since these injections will need to occur for your dog’s lifetime, most people choose to perform the injections themselves.  However, if you really cannot stomach the idea of giving your dog a shot, you should contact your local veterinarian to see if they can assist with your regular injections.

For us, the entire process, including the dermatologist consultation, intradermal allergy test and 6- month vaccine cost roughly $500.  Her ongoing 6-month vaccine costs roughly $140.  Compared to the $300 per month veterinary visits and medication fees we were paying, the cost for these allergy shots is a drop in the bucket.  Plus, we have a much happier and healthier dog.

Hyposensitization/Allergy Shot Benefits:

  • Hyposensitization works on 65-85% of dogs placed on this form of treatment.
  • Often the only solution for dogs who do not respond to other allergy treatments.
  • A more natural approach to allergy treatments than steroids – trains the body to heal itself and not respond to allergens.

Hyposensization/Allergy Shot Drawbacks:

  • May not work for 15-32% of dogs who are placed on this form of treatment.
  • May not see significant results for four months to a year.
  • Initial test and first round of vaccine costs roughly $500.  Ongoing vaccines run roughly $300 per year.
  • Lifetime commitment – injections are given every couple of weeks for the lifetime of your dog.

As I mentioned earlier, allergy shots have been very effective for Elsie.  However, it is a long term commitment and depending on the severity of your dog’s allergies, it may be more costly than other forms of treatment.