It’s been 3 years since our initial article about ragweed allergies and dogs, and that article remains one of our most searched, most read, and most commented posts.
Thank you for that.
The topic of ragweed allergies is obviously of huge importance and interest to you, and we felt that we should supplement it with some additional material. Sorry for the delay in realizing we have more to share on this subject.
*Before we get into it, please remember to always consult your veterinarian for any health matters related to your dog. We are not dog-health experts; we are writing based on our experiences. Your vet can help you determine if and when the best time is to put your dog on medication, as well as the appropriate dose, duration, and weaning schedule. Thanks for your attention.*
When we first encountered ragweed allergy with our dog, we clued in that something was wrong when the symptoms were relatively extreme, and that was the example we provided in the first article.
You’ve probably experienced the same thing.
Our Lab, Juno, was up all night (keeping us up in the process) chewing, licking, scratching, and gnawing her paws and arms raw by morning. If there were any early signs, we probably missed them. They were probably less severe, and we may have dismissed them as something else.
After 7 years of dealing with this allergy with our dog, we now know what to anticipate, and what to do when the inevitable symptoms start to appear.
Notice the arrival of symptoms
First, pay attention to the symptoms. Get to know when they kick in (August in our region), early signs (e.g., minor licking of the paws that’s out of the ordinary), progression (e.g., this paw-licking starts to take place during the night), and severity (e.g., your dog won’t stop easily, can’t be distracted or redirected, and is beginning to make the fur on its paws/arms appear thin, discoloured, or the skin raw). You may also notice that your dog’s face appears drawn, with tinge of greyness or darker bags under its eyes.
Another key indicator is the “suddenness” of the symptoms kicking in.
Imagine: you’re sleeping soundly in the middle of the night. Your dog sleeping soundly too, but suddenly snaps awake and starts intensely biting at a spot on one of their legs. Kind of like they just got stung or bitten by something, except that they likely didn’t. It’s the allergy symptoms setting in.
Similarly, the beginning of the frantic, incessant, compulsive behaviour is a sign that the allergy is kicking in: when your dog stops doing something that would otherwise completely occupy their attention (e.g., walking, chewing on a bone, playing, eating, greeting you at the door), and starts to uncontrollably gnaw or lick at its arms and feet, almost as if in a trance. Agitated body scratching beyond the arms and legs might also come into play.
In these situations, you’ve likely noticed that your dog does not respond to verbal commands to stop, and even resists your attempts to move their head away from the itchy spots. Your dog is completely fixated on itching, chewing, biting, licking its paws and legs, and there’s not much you can do to stop that from happening.
We’ve noticed that the chewing behaviour is worse at night. While we don’t know for sure, perhaps this midnight behaviour happens because there is less overall distraction for the dog compared to during the day. Less distracting noise, commotion, and activity, more overall quiet and a settled, still environment.
Understand the factors affecting symptoms
There are a number of factors that can affect your dog’s allergic symptoms. These include geographic location and weather, which affect ragweed growth and spread, and which together, create a year-to-year variation in how your dog is affected.
Taken together, these factors will likely affect the allergic experience of your dog (e.g., type of symptoms–paw licking vs. body scratching, severity–minor paw licking vs. aggressive chewing, and duration–from a couple of weeks to a few months).
In the process, here are a number of experiences you will likely experience as an owner: tiredness, frustration, feelings of helplessness, sympathy, and uncertainty.
And here’s where we help you to master the situation, whether for the first time, or for the seventh. Why? Because we’ve been there. We’ve had the sleepless nights and the despair as our dog has been chewing her arms raw, with very little we thought we could do to stop it.
But here’s what we’ve learned to help our dog.
Deciding when medication is necessary
While we suppose it’s possible to let your dog make its way through the allergy season without medication, that approach will likely result in a several very uncomfortable weeks for your dog and for you.
Determine the balance – deciding when medication is necessary, and, if so, for how long.
Our first objective is to relieve Juno’s intense discomfort, while mitigating the inevitable side effects of the medications in question. Often there’s a trade-off in health care: take a medication to stop one thing, but have a plan to look out for and manage any potential negative side effects.
To help our dog’s overall health, we don’t initiate the medication during the early stages of the allergic season (e.g., mild licking or chewing). We wait until the behaviour starts to approach its more typical “frantic” state.
Why do we do this?
We don’t do this to prolong our dog’s discomfort, but more to consider the impact that potential long-term use of the medication (in our case, Vanectyl-P) can have on dogs’ immune systems.
Short-term pain for long-term gain.
We try to minimize the time she’s on the medication, as well as the amount of the dose.
Think of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. This strategy suggests that medical interventions should start from a position of doing nothing, and then only increase gradually as the individual situation warrants.
And yes, that might mean a bit of extra discomfort for our dog at the beginning, before the situation becomes “bad” enough and medicine is truly needed.
So how do we decide when it’s time for medication?
A sample threshold is when the chewing or licking behaviour starts to show signs of lightly damaging the fur. This stage is one of quick progression where fur damage turns to skin damage, making the skin prone to infection if it becomes red and raw, scratched, or even starts bleeding. Fortunately for us, this is an easy discolouration to spot, as Juno’s fur is so light, almost matching the colour of the skin underneath. With darker-haired dogs, a closer look may be required.
Another way to think of the situation: you, a human, might have a scratch on your head or arm (e.g., a mosquito bite), which might cause you to itch that spot regularly over a period of a few days. However, if you begin to scratch it so much that you break your skin or cause more irritation, you might become prone to infection that would require additional medical attention.
If something’s not too bad, our approach has been to monitor it, but to otherwise leave it alone.
Back to the dog’s ragweed allergy. We’ve learned that there’s not much you can do to stop the reaction. A high pollen count doesn’t “coat” your dog’s skin, although that seems like the obvious culprit. The dog is not trying to lick or chew off pollen from its fur or skin.
Instead, when dogs are exposed to pollen in the air, the way their bodies react is through irritation in the skin.
Wiping your dog off with cool cloths may help to temporarily alleviate the itchy feeling, and bring comfort and relief (I mean, come on, who among us humans doesn’t like a cool cloth on a hot summer day?), but it won’t eliminate the underlying problem of the reaction.
The soothing aspect of cooling, physical contact and comfort when people or dogs are sick and uncomfortable is undeniable.
When you do start the medication, follow the directions provided by your vet. We’ve found that some years, we have leftover medication. The following allergy season we will begin with that leftover medication, provided it hasn’t expired.
In fact, we just started Juno on her leftover medication today. We called the vet yesterday to let the office know we were going to start again, 1) so they could update her medical record, and 2) so we could double-check that dosage standards hadn’t changed since last year.
Helpful hint: keep track of timing and dosage. We keep a note pad near Juno’s food so we remember which days are medication days and which aren’t. Vanectyl-P has a specific dosing schedule that eases up the longer it’s taken. It also helps to record dosages so that family members or dog-walkers, caretakers, etc., can easily see whether it’s a medication day or not, especially if they were not the last ones to administer a dose or feed the dog. Keeping track of starting dates – and end dates – helps to anticipate the schedule and needs (refills, etc.) for next year.
Another tip is that, when you start the medication for a new season, start when you are going to be at home. Either an evening or a day when you’re home, or perhaps a weekend if that’s a time when you’re closer to home. This makes it easier to watch your dog for any adverse reactions and, if needed, take them to the vet for additional care.
Ending the medication
Your vet will likely provide you with a dosage schedule (amount and duration), and from what we’ve learned, the process is similar to humans and antibiotic medications: it’s best to complete the course of the medication.
That said, through conversations with our vet, we realized that, as owners, we have some discretion about when to start weaning our dog off the medication. This strategy is particularly true if you start to notice adverse affects of the medication on your dog.
You know your dog better than anyone. You know what’s “normal” for them, and what’s not. Our owner-knowledge and experience with our dog is a complementary aspect to our vet’s recommended course of action.
We’ve often noticed that some licking and chewing comes back as we wean our dog off the medication. You might have had, or will have, a similar experience.
It’s important to remember that, given the potential significant effects the long-term use of the medication can have on your dog’s system, you’re not necessarily trying to eliminate the symptoms, but trying to minimize them and the associated discomfort (i.e., there might still be some symptoms present – licking, biting, gnawing, chewing, and scratching).
The idea is to get the symptoms to a minimum, relative to a worst-case situation of gnawing and biting until your dog has bleeding arms, is prone to infection, and an exhausted family hasn’t slept in weeks.
Eliminating the symptoms completely with medication may have an undue negative impact on your dog’s immune system. So, you might have to deal with a few of these symptoms in the short-term to help your dog’s overall health in the long-term.
Kind of like cold medication in humans. Rarely is it the case that you ever eliminate all of the symptoms. We’re lucky if we can reduce all of the uncomfortable symptoms down to just a stuffy nose for a few days.
Same idea with your dog.
Preparations you can make
How can you get ready for the yearly attack of ragweed allergy with your dog?
For one, you can track dates.
Begin with a year-over-year timeline for when symptoms kick in (usually in August for us, but this timelines can depend on your location and local weather conditions).
Beginning with the first year when your dog exhibits the allergy, you can track when you start and stop any medications, as well as vet appointments.
You can keep these dates and records in your (digital) calendar, and set reminders for predetermined days, weeks, or months in advance, so you’re not caught off guard when the seasonal signals arrive. You can have the medication in the cupboard.
You can also check pollen counts, and sign up for notices or news alerts for the pollen and weather conditions in your area.
Technology is a wonderful help on this front.
For additional information, check out our next post on dealing with the side-effects of ragweed allergy medication.
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