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.