We recently did an allergy test for Sami, our 2 year old Westie, and it turns out he is allergic to dust mites. Ugh. And storage mites. Which is possibly the least easy allergy to deal with, since dust mites are EVERYWHERE. After we found out, we have done quite some research on the subject and here is what we learned.
Dust mites allergy... What does it mean?
Allergies are common in dogs in general and skin allergies are very common in Westies. The first symptoms usually appear close to 1 year of age (and before 3 years old), so you probably won’t be able to tell if your puppy is allergic to anything just yet.
Sami showed symptoms exactly after he turned 1 year old. Allergies can’t be cured completely, but they can be managed by reducing the dog’s contact with the specific allergens that he is allergic to. In many cases, depending on the allergy, there will be flares (like the seasonal allergies for example, when the dog is allergic to pollen or certain plants), so there is a chance your dog won’t have symptoms all year round. Unless he is allergic to frickin’ dust mites! Which are around all. the. time. And apparently more so in fall and winter, when we wear warmer clothes, blankets and such – and mites love that.
What are the symptoms, what to look for?
Sami’s symptoms are scratching and chewing or licking certain spots until the skin becomes irritated and red and one side of his mouth swells. If left untreated, it can turn into wounds from all the scratching, which can in turn get infected from all the bacteria that comes in contact with the wound. The scratching of course makes it worse, so aside from cleaning the skin we sometimes also use a collar (or donut) on him, when this happens. So if you notice your dog licking or chewing his paws often or scratching a lot, there is a chance he has allergies.
How to test for allergies?
Well, you should first see your vet and have them check your pup to rule out anything else. If they suspect it’s allergies, there are two ways to test:
- Skin testing. Which our vet didn’t recommend because it’s very uncomfortable for the dog. What they do is apply a set of common allergens to the skin and observe how irritated the skin gets and then determine what the allergies are. It’s unnecessarily cruel and you can avoid that by choosing option no. 2.
- Blood testing. They basically draw blood, analyze it in the lab by exposing it to common allergens, see what comes up, then test for sub-allergens and so on, until they determine what the allergies are. The results are just as accurate and it’s pain free (if you don’t consider the needle) 😀
You should know allergy testing is expensive, which is why many vets may not even recommend it and jump to prescribing medicine instead. We paid over 400 euros here in Portugal and I know it can be more expensive in other countries. So it is quite a commitment, not everybody can afford that, but if you can, we recommend you do it because it allows you to know what you are dealing with. Maybe your dog is allergic to food and just by changing his diet you could eliminate his allergies, instead of start giving him medicine right away. In our case, since he is allergic to dust mites, we know that we need to keep him super clean and dust free, which we didn’t know before testing.
What we are doing to keep it under control:
- Keep Sami as clean as possible. I know, it’s not easy, since he is a dog (!) and even if we keep him white it doesn’t mean he is dust mites free. Before, I used to bathe him every 3-4 weeks and in between I would use wet wipes daily to keep him clean. Now, the vet recommended weekly baths to wash off the allergens from the skin and coat. We are using a medicated shampoo that is especially formulated for skin allergies and it works best if you keep it lathered on the skin for 10 minutes before rinsing off. On the days he doesn’t take a bath, we brush him before bed and use these unscented, parabens free wet wipes to clean him. If we don’t do this for a few days, we start noticing the side of his mouth swelling and he starts scratching his chin a lot, until it becomes red and crusty. So, we need to always prevent this from happening.
- Take extra care of his paws. His allergy affects mostly his paws. He often has itchy, red skin between his fingers, on the upper side of the paw and sometimes on the paw pads. He will lick and chew at them constantly, which only makes it worse. What I do for this is I wash his paws after walkies and I spray a hidrocortisone solution which is cortisone that helps his allergic skin but is water-based, so it doesn’t get absorbed through the skin into the body, it stays on the surface (this is important to me because cortisone can cause damage if taken regularly). In case he chews his paws raw, which rarely happens, I apply a cortisone and antibiotic cream over that specific area and it usually heals fast. I also have a regenerating balm that I use on Sami’s paws at night, to moisturize his skin and help it recover.
- We use products that are formulated for hot spots. They usually disinfect and hydrate the area. Right now we have three such products: wet wipes, a mousse called Hexaderm (which is available only in Portugal, I think) that has chlorexidine and a liquid soap called Hibiscrub that is mainly used for disinfecting and also contains chlorexidine. The last two products are interchangeable and can be used everyday, but I noticed they dry the skin so I try to only use them when needed. The wet wipes should only be used on actual hot spots, so we only use them when we notice that.
- Keep the house as dust free as possible. That means vacuuming often, washing his beds, blankets, pillows and stuffed toys often and just in general making sure the environment isn’t one where dust mites would thrive. Unfortunately that means avoiding having things that that attract mites like wallpaper, lots of books, thick carpets, curtains or a fabric sofa (leather or vinyl is preferable). In our case, we don’t have curtains, books or wallpaper but we do have some thick carpets (and they are Sami’s favorite places to play in the morning) and we have a fabric sofa which are all new, since we moved into our new house recently and just bought them this year. So we are doing everything possible to keep Sami’s allergies controlled before it gets to the point where we need to get rid of our stuff and replace everything. We did recently get a bean bag with a synthetic leather cover, which he loves to sleep in and guess what? It’s dust free! 🙂 And luckily, we have a roomba type vacuum which we use every other day and you wouldn’t imagine how much dust it catches every time! To keep the home dust free it is also recommended to clean your AC filters (if you have AC) often.
Things we are considering:
- Switching to veterinary formulated food (like hypoallergenic, but since his allergies aren’t food related, the vet recommended a skin care food that takes care of the skin by adding nutrients needed to fortify the skin barrier and help it deal with itchiness).
- Adding more Omega 3 and 6 sources to his food (like cooked salmon or Omega 3 and 6 supplements like oil). However, we first have to consider the contents of the food he is already having, for example when we switch to a new food we will first look on the label and ask our vet if he needs any extra Omega supplements. But in some cases the kibble already contains everything that is needed and it’s not a good idea to overfeed a certain nutrient, which could do more harm than good. We often do mix his kibble with home cooked food, like lamb, duck or fish, brown rice, pumpkin, carrots, sweet potato.
Things that may help, but we’re not considering and here is why:
- Medication (pills or injection). Our vet explained our options and recommended we give Sami either Apoquel pills or Cytopoint injection, which are immuno-supressants that help reduce allergy symptoms. Why we refused? Mainly because I feel that we should first try all other options and only use strong medication when there is truly no other way. I am not against this medication, just that I would rather not expose him to it unless it’s my last option. There are still little things we can do every day to help him feel comfortable with this allergy and luckily, since we work from home, we are able to do these things. We also did a lot of research and in some cases, these medications may work for a while and then stop working completely, or need a bigger dose. And then we would be back to where we started. So for the moment, while thankfully his symptoms are under control (meaning he doesn’t scratch himself raw), allergy medication is not an option we are considering.
- Allergen-specific immunotherapy. This is done by introducing small doses of the allergen in the dog’s system and gradually increasing that dose with every session aiming that the dog builds a tolerance to that allergen over time. Maybe you have heard of immunotherapy, maybe you have even tried it. We talked to people who are currently going through this, we also talked to our vet and the conclusion is that this still a grey area. Our vet said that according to the studies, allergy therapy isn’t proven to work and in the cases it does, it only helps reduce symptoms by something like 5-10%. Which, she said, is great for dogs who are truly in pain, scratching themselves raw all over and with no other solutions that work, of course any improvement in their quality of life it worth it. But in lighter cases, you may not really see results. Another downside is that this therapy takes minimum 1 year to show any results, sometimes even two or more, with monthly sessions (and it’s pretty expensive too, but this wouldn’t be an issue if we had any guarantee that it actually works). If you have tried this, however, please leave a comment and let us know if it worked for your pup!
- Feeding raw food. There is a belief that feeding a raw diet (also known as BARF diet) helps with the allergies. We actually did feed raw for two months and while there was no serious itching in that time, there were other serious issues that made us go back to kibble and home cooked. During those months, Sami’s weight dropped significantly (about 1.5kg) despite us feeding him the recommended amount (aprox. 2.5-3% of his bodyweight, daily) and a balanced diet with all the nutrients. The PH in his urine changed to the point that he developed a blockage several times and he couldn’t pee, so we had to go to the vet on consecutive days for them to drain the urine out and wash his bladder in order to dissolve the blockage. It was traumatizing to say the least. I’m not saying this was a direct result of the raw food, I honestly have no idea if it was related or not, but my vet seemed to think so. Towards the end he also stopped eating his food, he just didn’t like it anymore and he would rather stay hungry than eat his raw meal, which helped our decision to stop. A red flag for us is also that raw meat poses a big risk for bacteria and viruses that can affect Sami, as well as us (yes, we’re those people who let their dog kiss their face and we love it!), which is something many people warned us about, including our vet. So after lots of research, we decided this is not the best solution for us.
The routine that works for us
So where we are at right now? Well, there are weeks when Sami is doing ok and minimum maintenance is needed and there are also days when his allergies flare up, he scratches and licks constantly and no amount of baths, cleaning, applying products will help in that moment. And then everything returns to normal again at some point.
Even so, I noticed that with this routine we have now, everything seems to be under control. Our routine is: weekly baths, washing his paws after every walk, cleaning his fur every night before bed (brush and wet wipes) and using the hot spots wipes followed by chlorexidine or hydrocortison on the areas where he usually scratches. And he has days when everything is fine, but most days he does lick his paws or tail a little but nothing major. Unfortunately it’s something we have to live with and always pay attention to. We are hoping that this will be enough in the long run and hopefully we will be able to keep it under control without adding medicine to the mix. It is a bit of extra effort on a daily basis, but it’s so worth it if that means that Sami will be comfortable and happy! 🙂