For more info, check out our follow-up posts: Ragweed Allergy in Dogs – Part 2: Mastering decisions about your dog’s health and Ragweed Allergy in Dogs – Part 3: Dealing with medication side-effects.
Has hayfever gone to the dogs? It seems so. Dogs get seasonal allergies too.
With summer winding down and fall quickly approaching, ragweed is triggering some major allergy symptoms in our dogs now that it has bloomed all over North America. Ragweed’s pollen counts climb steadily every day throughout August and culminate around early to mid September. The plant blooms finally taper off at first frost, so October or November, depending on where you live.
The plant is a ‘highly adapted perennial’, so it blooms where it’s planted and spreads easily. It’s known for its tenacity, meaning it likes to stay put, and that makes it difficult to get rid of.
It’s an invasive weed that has spread more in recent years due to climate change. The plants are now flowering longer because of delays in autumn frost. So more flowers are producing more pollen, and spreading further distances over a longer period of time. Not good for allergy sufferers.
And that includes our dogs.
You can read all about ragweed and its invasive ecology here.
Dogs show signs of seasonal allergies primarily through their skin. Excessive licking, biting, gnawing, and all-over scratching are all good indicators that an airborne allergen is affecting them. They can get our symptoms too (especially the itchy, red, watery eyes and the sneezing), but airborne allergies in dogs most typically come with skin irritation.
This can get tricky to diagnose though; the licking, biting, etc. are all good indicators of a food or drug sensitivity too. Chances are though, that if the onset is sudden and during the late summer, and nothing else has changed in their diet or medication, they might be allergic to ragweed.
Our first summer with Juno was fine. Nothing out of the ordinary. The summer she was one though, everything changed. Not only did she get her first sting or bite, but one night in mid August, she started scratching and didn’t stop. She scratched all night long. Thumping her hind leg on the floor every time she tried, unsuccessfully, to itch her small elbow. On both sides. Then she ran her face along the carpet, the rug, our bed, her bed, the wall.
We had no idea what was going on.
We got up and tried to settle her, stop her, see what was wrong, but we couldn’t see anything. No bite marks from a bug, no puncture wounds from a sting, nothing out of the ordinary. So we wiped her down with a cool facecloth, and tried to get some sleep.
In the morning, her front legs looked like this:
That weekend, we went to visit family friends at their cottage, about 600 km away. And a curious thing happened about two hours into the drive: Juno’s itching stopped. She slept like a baby the rest of the way there and didn’t itch or lick or gnaw at all for three days.
On our way back, about two hours from home, the itching and irritation set in again.
We were dumbfounded.
First, Google to the rescue (a quick search for ‘geographic itching in dogs + summer’) and second, our amazing vet to the rescue.
Juno was the 42nd dog to have an appointment that week for itching and excessive licking.
42nd and counting. Their phones were ringing off the hook.
It took three more days to get an appointment. Three more days and three long nights of licking, biting, and more blood-riddled front legs before we had a diagnosis – Ragweed allergy – and then a remedy.
Enter steroids. Vanectyl-P to be exact. This is serious medication, folks. It’s hard on a dog’s system and can have lasting effects.
Short-term side effects are excessive thirst and urge to urinate (that means a lot of midnight and twilight runs out to the backyard, rain or shine), lethargy and increased appetite (doubling the potential for weight gain), lower tolerance for heat (it’s still summer), increased susceptibility to infection because the immune system is suppressed, and an overall ‘muting’ of mood. Juno had glassy eyes, no affect, no energy, and no personality coming through for 2 months. But she wasn’t itchy…so, hooray?
Overall, the medication does its job. It works to suppress the immune system, so the dog’s body produces less histamine in response to ragweed in the air. So the dog stops itching and we all get sleep. And the dog gets some much-needed relief.
But, not so fast.
We did have a run-in with adverse side effects last summer.
Juno was stumbling to get her back legs under her one morning. Both legs were unsteady and couldn’t bear much weight. Juno did make it downstairs, with much coaxing and then just lay down. I did some quick Googling (it was early morning, so our vet wasn’t open yet) and found out that Vanectyl-P can pull potassium from the body in vast amounts, which can lead to muscle weakness and instability in the hind quarter. Bingo.
In a quick, let’s-be-resourceful-here-and-see-if-this-works, calculated move, I gave her a whole banana, which I knew was loaded with potassium. (Not the peel.)
It worked! It actually worked, and almost instantly.
Juno perked up, stood up – completely unencumbered, and went back to her morning routine of heading to the back door to ask to be let out. Whoa. Banana for the win!
We called the vet to let them know and then continued to monitor her closely over the course of the day. But she was fine and a few days later, the first frost hit and the Vanectyl-P bottle went back in the cupboard for another year.
This medication isn’t recommended for long term use, so vets always recommend going with the lowest possible effective dose. But it’s a long ragweed season (for us, at over 2 months), so it’s tough on a dog’s system no matter which way you slice it.
But it’s the best solution we’ve found, and so we continue to keep a bottle of leftovers in the cupboard, unfortunately awaiting the symptoms every year. And we’re four for five years; it’s already started this year with small fits of itching and gnawing. But we’re waiting it out until the last possible moment, at which point we’ll start by using the leftover pills (okayed by the vet) and then calling to renew our prescription for this year.
So if any of this sounds vaguely familiar – the excessive licking, the biting, gnawing, and all-over scratching, and if it’s just started, and you live anywhere in North America or in the northern part of South America, and nothing else has changed in your dog’s diet or medication, your dog might be allergic to ragweed.
It happens to Juno every summer – predictably the week between the 12th to 15th of August.
Hayfever has gone to the dogs, but I hope for your sake and your dog’s, that your dog isn’t one of them. But if he or she is, I’d suggest making an appointment with your vet. You’ll all get relief in the end.
Hope this helps!
For more info, check out our follow-up post: Ragweed Allergy in Dogs – Part 2: Mastering decisions about your dog’s health
Let us know in the comments whether your dog(s) suffers from ragweed allergies. How do you manage it? Let’s talk Hayfever – chat with us below!
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