Canine Atopic Dermatitis: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Canine atopic dermatitis is the term given to the skin irritation that develops in dogs with allergies to certain common allergens such as pollen.

Canine atopic dermatitis is fairly common and is estimated to affect around 7-10% of dogs. It can take time for the allergies responsible for the skin irritation to develop, which means that symptoms of the condition may not appear until 1-3 years of age.

Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of canine atopic dermatitis are all discussed below.

What Causes Canine Atopic Dermatitis

Allergens are the substances responsible for causing an allergic reaction. Dogs with canine atopic dermatitis may be allergic to one or more allergens, all of which can cause irritation if inhaled or if they are absorbed via the skin.

Some of the more common allergens that can cause canine atopic dermatitis include:

  • Dust and dust mites
  • Pollen
  • Moulds
  • Wool and fabrics

In a similar manner to hay fever (an allergic response to the allergen pollen in humans) symptoms can worsen during summer/autumn when the pollen count is higher.

Dogs with canine atopic dermatitis are also more likely to develop flea allergy dermatitis. This is a similar condition where an allergic response to biting fleas causes skin irritation.

There are other similar conditions too, such as food allergies. See below for advice on differentiating canine atopic dermatitis from these conditions.

Predisposed Breeds

There is evidence to suggest that canine atopic dermatitis is more likely to affect certain breeds of dogs than others. This doesn’t mean that the breeds listed below are guaranteed to develop the condition, nor does it mean that breeds not listed will not develop the condition. The predisposed breeds include:

  • Boxers
  • Bulldogs
  • Dalmatians
  • English Setters
  • Irish Setters
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Lhasa Apsos
  • Poodles
  • Shar Pei
  • Wire Fox Terriers
  • West Highland White Terriers

Symptoms of Canine Atopic Dermatitis

Canine atopic dermatitis is mainly recognised by the irritation it causes to the skin. This irritation will cause the dog to scratch at the affected areas, weakening the skin and causing further irritation. Recognising the symptoms early can ensure faster treatment of the condition and break the cycle of scratching and skin irritation.

Symptoms of canine atopic dermatitis include:

  • Scratching, particularly the ears and stomach
  • Face rubbing
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Paw licking/chewing

As mentioned earlier, there are similar conditions where different allergies can cause skin irritation. This can sometimes make it difficult to determine the allergens responsible. There are, however, subtle differences you can look out for to determine if it is actually canine atopic dermatitis or not.

To differentiate canine atopic dermatitis from other conditions, look out for:

  • Symptoms developing before the age of 3
  • Itchiness before skin irritation is apparent
  • Irritation most obvious on front paws, ears and stomach

Indicators that your dog may be suffering from another allergic condition:

  • An itchy back can indicate flea allergy dermatitis
  • An itchy bottom can indicate a food allergy

To rule out a food allergy, with your vet’s guidance, you can try food trials (a hypoallergenic diet), where nearly all possible food allergens are removed from the diet. To rule out a flea or parasite allergy, effective flea/tick treatment should be given. If there is no improvement in your dog’s condition after these attempts canine atopic dermatitis may be the problem, your veterinarian can confirm this and offer guidance and advice on the best treatment.


canine atopic dermatitis paw
An inflamed paw due to excessive chewing as a result of canine atopic dermatitis – Nottingham Vet School

If left untreated, canine atopic dermatitis can lead to the development of more serious symptoms and conditions such as:

  • Deep scratches
  • Hair loss
  • Scabs and crusts
  • Bacterial skin infections
  • Depression
  • Greasy or flaky, dead skin
  • Ear infections and inflammation
  • Sensitive skin, which can worsen each year

For more examples of canine atopic dermatitis, click here.

Treatment of Canine Atopic Dermatitis

One of the best treatments for canine atopic dermatitis, is to identify the allergen or allergens responsible and remove them from your dog’s environment. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when the allergens responsible are usually extremely common around the home environment, e.g. pollen or dust mites.

Ways to reduce the amount of allergen in the environment include:

  • Cleaning dog after exposure to pollen, e.g. Wiping their coat with a damp towel or cloth after going outside.
  • Limit their time spent outdoors to minimise pollen exposure
  • Air purifiers to help limit the amount of dust, pollen, dust mites, fabric etc. in the air that could be inhaled

Other means of treating canine atopic dermatitis include:

  • Treating the irritated skin that can worsen the scratching, such as moisturising dry skin or providing itch relief.
  • Medicated shampoo can help calm and soothe the skin, reducing scratching, and also help decrease the likelihood of bacterial infections developing
  • Essential omega 3 fatty acid supplements can also help strengthen the coat and skin, and reduce inflammation

Canine atopic dermatitis can also be treated with medication:

  • Antihistamines – Block the action of histamine, a compound found in the body, involved in inflammation
  • Corticosteroids – Prevent the activation of certain immune cells involved in allergic responses
  • Cyclosporine – An immunosuppressant that reduces the allergy response by the immune system

Immunotherapy is becoming an increasingly viable option:

IMULAN BioTherapeutics is currently developing an immunotherapy (undergoing trials) that targets T-helper cells. These cells are part of the body’s immune system and can amplify the production IgE (an antibody). It is IgE that is in part responsible for the development of skin allergies – so by targeting the T-helper cells, the therapy can reduce the production of IgE. 

See here for Canine Atopic Dermatitis: Old and New Therapies, an in-depth look at the treatment and management of the condition.

Featured Image Credit – Stuart Richards

About James Watts

BSc Bioveterinary Science. Editor of PetSci. When I'm not writing, learning, discussing, or reading about animals, you know it's the weekend! Currently developing PetSci HealthTrak, the fast and easy way to monitor your pet's weight and calorie intake. HealthTrak offers a simple way to track your pet's progress, helping them achieve a healthy weight and a long, happy life.

Check Also

rhodesian ridgeback JME

Myoclonic Epilepsy Gene Discovered in Dogs

A gene potentially linked to epilepsy has been discovered in dogs. A study investigated juvenile myoclonic …

Curly coat retriever

Rapid Decline in Male Dog Fertility Observed

Male dog fertility has drastically decreased over the past 26 years, a University of Nottingham study …


  1. thank you. I have got a lot of information about canine atopy. The article was really nice.

  2. My Alsatian has dermatitis and is also epileptic. Poor old lad’s been really unlucky. The vet prescribed steroids for his dermatitis and they do seem to help

  3. Somnath Banerjee

    my dog tommy a labrador retriever is infected with a topic dermatitis in paws for almost 2yrs all types of medicated sprays powders and shampoos like pet derm dermiclhor have been used in his treatment but conditions are worsening and he can’t even walk properly now pls help me and my pet dog

    • My Labrador has the same problem..nothing seems to help..tried different medicines still it comes back. How is your dog now??

  4. Just starting our journey with atopic dermatitis, we have a cross Newfoundland Lab, we are hoping it’s only stress related following an aural haematoma surgery and the cone was on for 3 weeks. We are currently administering flaxseed oil capsules along with Apoquel he has douxo mousse we we work into his skin and coat 3 times a week and today we got a shampoo with an antibiotic in, I can hear him snoring away as I type this, today was a good day for all of us. Poor lad has been through the mill.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.