Its full name is Atopic Dermatitis. For the purposes of this discussion we will focus on this disease in dogs, known as Canine Atopic Dermatitis. Atopy is a lifelong condition, and there is no cure. It can be distressing to pets and owners, frustrating to treat, and expensive. But good management and understanding can reduce flare ups and reduce the symptoms.

What causes atopy?

Certain dogs will produce antibodies to something in the environment (allergens) leading to an allergic reaction, inflammation and redness. House dust mites, moulds, pollens from grasses, trees and weeds could all be allergens. Defects in the skin’s natural barriers lead to skin drying, allowing allergens to penetrate further and for bacteria/yeasts to follow.

How did my dog get it?

Atopy is not something your dog catches. Certain breeds are genetically predisposed, including the West Highland White Terrier, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd Dog, Boxer and Shar Pei.

How common is it?

The most common cause of itching in the dog is an allergy to flea saliva (Flea Allergic Dermatitis). Atopy is the second most common cause for itching, and affects an estimated 10-15% of the population.

Other causes for itching include food allergy (Adverse Food Reaction), mites and skin infections.

Allergic skin disease is the most common reason for owners to visit the vets.

What signs may my dog have?

Signs could be intermittent, mild, or may be continuous and severely affect your dog’s quality of life.

The first signs may be scratching, chewing, rubbing, or licking at the face, feet, ears, armpits and groin. In the beginning, there may be no change in the skin in these areas. As the disease progresses the skin may become red and there may be hair loss due to the trauma.

In the long-term, this can result in secondary changes such as thickening of the skin (lichenification), hyperpigmentation, otitis externa (ear infections), bacterial skin disease (pyoderma), and loss of hair and/or acute moist dermatitis (hot spots).

Atopy is the most common trigger for ear infections in dogs. Ear disease may be the only sign in some atopy sufferers.

How do I know it’s atopy, and not something else?

There is no test for Canine Atopic Dermatitis. Our vets diagnose it by ruling out other possible causes such as parasites, hormone conditions and other allergies.

Many skin diseases have a similar appearance, which can be challenging. Plus, atopy can also occur alongside other allergies such as Flea Allergic Dermatitis and Adverse Food Reactions, making the situation more complicated. Furthermore atopic dogs are more vulnerable to yeast or bacterial infections, which can be extremely itchy.

A diet trial is sometimes useful to determine if food is implicated. Our vets can give you more details on how to do this and whether you should. If your dogs signs are seasonal, it’s not likely to be caused by food. Food reactions are more common in dogs under 12 months old and as many as a third of cases will have gastrointestinal signs too.

Once a diagnosis of CAD has been made, there may be an option of further testing to find out what the allergen(s) is/are.

Is there anything I can do myself to help reduce the signs?

Early diagnosis and management is the key to try and prevent this condition causing chronic, permanent change to the skin and ears. If in doubt please talk to one of our vets.

You can try reducing exposure to the allergen, although this is rarely successful alone. Reduce house dust mites by vacuuming regularly, and washing bedding and toys at high temperatures to kill the mites. For grass allergies, keep grass short and wash the dog after exposure. For all cases, minimise exposure to fleas by using regular, effective, preventative flea treatments. If your dog has atopy, they are likely to also be allergic to fleas. Speak to one of the team for more information on preventative flea treatment.

What treatment options are there?

All sufferers and their symptoms are unique, and there is no one treatment that fits all. One of our vets can talk through the options tailored specifically to your pet. These may include:

Allergen-Specific Immunotherapy Treatment (ASIT)

After tests to find out what allergens are involved, these allergens are administered in very small amounts, increasing at each treatment, to a maximum dose. Most treatments are directed towards treating symptoms, no matter what the allergen is, so our vets can help you decide if this path would be useful for your dog.

Shampoos/cleaners and supplements

There are many shampoos on the market. Some are soothing, or anti itch, others help treat specific secondary infection, or remove allergens from the skin’s surface. Regular use of ear cleaners can help reduce the frequency of ear problems. One of our vets can help you choose a shampoo and/or ear cleaner for your dogs needs.

Essential fatty acid supplements may help improve the skin’s natural defenses and reduce the amount of prescription medication needed. More research needs to be done in this area, as the evidence base is weak, but there appears to be no harmful effects.


There are a few different prescription ‘anti-itch’ tablets, used for both treatment and management. These medications are widely used for atopy, but thorough discussion with one of our vets is needed, to discuss the pros and the cons of each, with your own pets circumstances in mind. Creams and sprays are available, for certain circumstances.

In summary atopy is an extremely common, lifelong allergy. It can be mild, but when more severe, it can really affect your pet’s quality of life, and be distressing to watch. As there is no cure, understanding this condition and preventing flare ups is key. Maintaining contact with us is important, so when flare-ups occur, we can act swiftly to make your pet more comfortable and prevent long-term permanent changes.