My Dog Has Fleas… and that’s the Least of It! Managing Skin Allergies in Dogs

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When I found my dog, Boo Boo, wandering the streets last fall, it was obvious she had some problems. For starters, she was much too thin (she resembled a bobble head).  She also had large patches of hair missing from her neck, chest and back.

black dog missing fur on it's chest

Is it drafty in here?

She was so filthy I didn’t even realize how much hair she was missing until after I gave her a bath, and it was weeks before I was able to penetrate the layers of black tar-like gunk that had accumulated in both her ears.  After I got her cleaned up, however,  I realized that she was going to need more than regular square meals and good hygiene to get her healthy again.

black dog recovering from mistreatment

I’ll take that square meal now, please.

Boo itched.  Maddeningly and constantly, her itching plagued her to the point that she would dart from place to place in the house as if she thought she could outrun it.  I had taken her to the vet numerous times and come home packing a canine apothecary each time, but nothing we had tried so far was able to completely alleviate her discomfort.

Then, on one of Boo Boo’s monthly vet visits, her regular practitioner was on vacation.  The vet filling in just happened to take a special interest in dermatology.  In fact, he was passionate about the subject and gladly spent over an hour educating me about what is unfortunately an all-too-common affliction in dogs:  skin allergies.

My vet broke it down this way.  A dog encounters an allergen by contact, inhalation or ingestion.  Since we didn’t know which of these factors was causing Boo Boo’s persistent condition (or if it was a combination or all three), he recommended a three-pronged approach to tackle them all:

1.)    The first rule of combating allergies in dogs is to get them on a preventative flea treatment (my vet prefers Frontline Plus) and keep them on it religiously (I remember to dose Boo Boo monthly by applying it on the same day I do other important things – like pay rent).   This should be an automatic for every pet owner, but it is especially important for dogs like Boo Boo who suffer from flea allergy dermatitis.

The most common allergy in dogs, flea allergy dermatitis is a condition in which the dog is hypersensitive to the saliva of fleas.  In allergic dogs, all it takes is one or two bites from a flea to cause an allergic reaction, resulting in unbearable itching which dogs will scratch and bite to the point that they can develop inflammation, sores, and permanent skin damage.   Having these types of sores can also leave a dog vulnerable to secondary skin infections such as yeast and staph, underscoring the critical importance of always keeping up on their flea treatment regimen.

flea bites on a dog

Regular use of preventative flea treatments make life easier for you AND your dog.

In conjunction with keeping Boo Boo flea-free, my vet told me it was important to keep her dirt-free by giving her weekly baths.  Dogs like Boo Boo who have allergens working against them from the inside can also be susceptible to allergens from the outside (like seasonal pollen or other environmental factors).  Bathing her weekly washes away any surface allergens that she may have picked up and soothes her itchy skin at the same time.  My vet prescribed a medicated shampoo but you can find great pet shampoos for allergies containing soothing oatmeal and even hydrocortisone to reduce inflammation.  Remember to only use lukewarm to cool water as hotter temperatures can irritate skin.

2.)     The second rule for managing Boo Boo’s allergies was to put her on a hypoallergenic diet.  (At first, I referred to this as the “Find the Most Expensive Can in the Pet Store Diet” but I came around as I started seeing improvement in Boo Boo’s skin and a reduction in vet bills.)  What a hypoallergenic diet actually consists of is foods that the dog has most likely never eaten before, and therefore cannot have developed antigens in their system that would cause them to react to it.

Since I adopted Boo Boo as an adult, I had no way of knowing what she may or may not have eaten during her lifetime, so I had to make some assumptions.  I already knew that the most common food allergies in dogs are:  beef, chicken, corn, dairy products (including eggs), soy, wheat and yeast.  After doing some research on hypoallergenic dog food online, I settled on a venison and sweet potato combo for Boo Boo.  (The one I picked was made in the USA by a company that also sources its meat from the United States.  This was important to me as I had read about several cases of dogs being sickened by food made with meat sourced from China.)

One important consideration when feeding your dog a hypoallergenic diet specifically to manage skin or other conditions:  you cannot feed your dog anything BUT the hypoallergenic food.  This means no treats, no table scraps and no supplements.  Monitor your dog (and alert people who come around your dog) to ensure you’re not compromising the integrity of the hypoallergenic diet.

3.)    The last step in the plan to get Boo Boo’s condition under control was medication.  Because Boo Boo’s case was so severe, my vet prescribed her a powerful oral steroid.  Steroids do not prevent allergies, but work by inhibiting the inflammation that cause allergic reactions, thus decreasing the resulting discomfort.  Steroids can have serious side effects so it is recommended that they only be used for short periods of time.

I took my vet’s instructions very seriously and followed them exactly.  I’m glad I did because it’s working.  Boo Boo has been on the hypoallergenic diet for a total of five months now, but I started seeing improvement after about one month.  At the onset, Boo Boo had sores down each side of her body (like the ones in the picture above) as well as yeast and staph infections which we had previously been unable to fully eradicate.  After 30 days on the diet and medications, I could see the sores drying up and she wasn’t scratching them back open.  After 60 days, the sores started to fade, and at 90 days I could actually touch her sides and she would wiggle in pleasure instead of cringing in pain.

Our battle with her condition is by no means over – it took 8 years of neglect by her previous owner to deteriorate her to this point and we’ve only been fighting it for 9 months – but I am confident that we’ve gotten through the worst of it.  She does still experience some itching from what my vet believes are internal “hot spots,” and she has a bad habit of chewing on her paws from time to time (although she doesn’t chew the hair off).  She’s also overweight from being on steroids for so long, but since weaning her off of them over the last month I have already noticed an increase in her stamina for exercise and a slight decrease in her girth.

black dog laying on a hardwood floor

Look at me now!

The best news is that today, she has no visible sores and loves nothing better than a good tummy rub and a thorough scratching down her sides and rump.  It must have literally been years since she’s been able to enjoy such a basic pleasure and it makes me indescribably happy to see her revel in it.  We also just recently hit a benchmark in Boo Boo’s long road back to good health – she finally has enough hair to start shedding!  Normally I wouldn’t be happy about that, but in her case it’s a welcome development.

rescued black dog gets a hug

Happy, not itchy.

UPDATE:  July 23, 2014

It has been approximately two years since I posted this blog and I am happy to report that all of the measures taken have continued to work!  Boo Boo has not had a skin flare-up since ending her last course of steroid medication almost two years ago.  Additionally, she is off all medication now and has lost all of the weight associated with long-term steroid use, going from a “fat-panting” 89 lbs. down to her current, healthy weight of 73 lbs.  Although we have changed foods a few times, she continues to thrive on a limited ingredient diet with meat sourced from the USA.  She will always have some thin spots and bald spots in her fur where the damage could not be undone, but overall her coat is shiny, healthy and thick.

One thing I have learned in the last two years that is worth a mention:  a dog with skin allergies can also manifest symptoms in other places.  In Boo Boo’s case, it is a susceptibility to ear infections. If her diet is “off” or if she gets treats or foods she is not supposed to eat, the first place it will show up is as an overgrowth of bacteria or yeast in one or both of her ears.  Just one more reason not to let your dog “cheat” when managing allergies through diet.

It is such a relief to me (and Boo Boo) that these changes in her lifestyle have worked!  She is a very happy and buoyant 11 year old, and will be able to enjoy the rest of her life itch-free.

Boo Boo with a svelte figure and healthy coat!

Boo Boo with a svelte figure and healthy coat!


Did you find this information helpful? Leave us a comment below.

29 Responses

  1. Steve says:

    Greetings all. Maybe there is somebody out there that may help my dogs frustrating situation + also save my wafer thin budget as well. I have a pet Chihuahua that is 8yrs old that every time spring/summer time comes around develops flea allergy dermatitis. I always keep him on flea prevention regime & bath him in a herbal flea & tick shampoo + an oatmeal shampoo on a fairly regular basis but not excessively as he is mostly indoors 90% of the time. Now here’s the down low. A flea or 2 might bight him when he is outside but jump off cos of the flea protection works & he develops this allergy. I have take him 2 my vet just about the same time every year when this occurs who gives him an injection of Dexamethasone & puts him on a 2-3wk course of MICROLONE tablets. This treatment does work but it is very expensive on my very low budget & was wondering is there any cheap type of “home remedy” that will fix this problem as he is suffering from this ailment now & I can’t afford 2 take him 2 my vet 4 a while as it costs me all up around $220 which I believe is highway robbery & I am on a very low pension & can only just get by from week 2 week on my water tight budget. Can anybody out there help me but more so my poor little fella “Vinnie”. Any helpful replies extremely appreciated . Thank you.

  2. melissa says:

    yes my two dogs her has fleas badly one dog has allergies to. and she is itchy herself raw in areas where hair is missing a lot to. and my other dog he has them to but he older age and has a bare tail for years we trying to get his hair back any suggestions. could u email me the answers thanks. also have two cats what should i give them also they got them to.

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Melissa: All of your pets should be on a monthly flea prevention regimen. Itching from flea bites is extremely uncomfortable for pets and can lead to hair loss (as you’re already experiencing) and permanent damage. Additionally, it can leave your pets open to secondary infection. Please get your pets on a flea regimen as soon as possible. has very reasonable prices. I would suggest you go to a pet supply store or your vet and get some now, and then order online at a discount so you can be sure to have it on hand for every month hereafter.

  3. Lindsay says:

    My vet gave just our Shih-tzu a RX tablet called Tamaril-P.
    Is that what Boo-Boo took? She just started it, so I was trying to research it.
    It contains prednisone ( which I know is a mild steroid & this medicine also has an antihistamine. Thanks!

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Lindsay: Boo Boo was on straight prednisone. Let me know how the Tamaril works for your dog – it sounds promising that it has both prednisone and an antihistamine – is it meant for short or long term use? Thanks for writing!

  4. Rhonda says:

    Beautiful story, great job with your persistence and perseverance to get beautiful ‘Boo-Boo’ back to health and giving her a nice life.

  5. grannyj says:

    11-12-14 Thank you so much for all your comments, read them all. I have written down and need to look them up: Vectra 3D, Cedar oil spray, Nuvet. Have just tried the OTC medicated shampoo and vinegar rinse. It could be working some, do not know yet. I had four adopted dogs, one very sensitive, another semi-sensitive, the other two normal. At 17, the American Eskimo mix passed away, he had no allergies, just old, had him since age 2. He was so smart and “human”. Next very large, beautiful Golden Retriever-Chow mix. A very good dog, no trouble she is soon 15. I had her since a pup. She has started getting the flea allergy. My very sensitive one is 12 soon. I had her since a pup. She has always been weaker. She is an Irish Setter mix probably with a Lab because she is black with a reddish glow.. She is the one we are busy on now. Instead of flowers after my husband had a heart procedure, I presented him with this bouncing, adorable warm, living, breathing pup. It worked for him ! She has been to a Vet over the years for the allergy, but not much luck, only pray for winter….winter seems to do her better. My last little girl is a Scott-Terrier mix. She is the bruiser, not afraid of anything. She will be 11 soon. I have had her since age 2. She is so loyal and understands…you would think she is human. Her hair is so thick and stays that way. They all stay in a drop-down concrete area in our home. I love them so near…of course, my babies. They love to go outside. I have fed these dogs USA dry dog food manufactured in St. Louis. I think I have noticed more grain in the products lately. Therefore, I am considering a lower grain dry food definitely made in the USA. I wish the replies could have stated what type of dogs you all have so we could analyze. Anyhow, I hope all our “babies” have a great 2015 !

  6. Cynthia P says:

    Great info I learned something new. Thank you.

  7. Vanessa Sykes says:

    This was a very good blog. I really needed this information. My poor dog has been extremely miserable and I just recently realized it’s because of skin allergies. Thanks.

  8. Leslie j says:

    My dog suffered from skin allergies and after numerous vet visits and diet changes which didn’t work we finally tried a product I found online called Nuvet. It’s basically vitamins but It worked so well that after a few months of using that and a drastic improvement we stopped using it and she’s been back to normal for over a year now. We still buy a high quality food (made in US) but otherwise she is medication free & healthy. Worth a try to anyone going through the same thing.

  9. Gary C. says:

    I have a 13 year old black lab female that has cushings disease as well as a fungus condition with her skin, both inside and outside. Nothing was mentioned by my vet about her diet so I will ask her about it, although I do have a special shampoo, (Ketoseb +PS) that I bought from them that controls the itching etc, plus Sierra is on a daily dose of Ketoconazole. I thouhgt your article was very informative and I’m glad that Boo is doing better!

  10. Lori Godmair says:

    Excellent information, thank you! This sounds and looks just like my dog’s problem. I’m going to discuss it with my vet. Thank you again.

  11. Mickie says:

    I’m right now going through the exact same problems with my dog, Romeo. We have changed his food, which makes a huge difference. As a matter of fact, it’s the only food he actually hasn’t gotten tired of eating. His skin looks much better, but he still has a long way to go. I’ve actually bathed him with Aveeno baby cleansing wash, and it seems to work well for him believe it or not. His weight has been an issue, even though he seems to have lost a couple of pounds.

  12. Teresa says:

    First of all I want to say you are an amazing person with a very kind heart for rescuing a dog who needed soo much love and attention. I wish the whole world was filled with people like you and I’m sure Boo Boo is repaying you with lots of doggie love! I have a three year old pit bull who suffered with mange as a puppy but after many vet visits she hasn’t had any skin issues in the last two years. I went out of town for one night and when I returned my dog had bumps all over her body. I inspected her thoroughly and found one flea on one of her paws. Is it possible that one flea can cause an allergic reaction throughout her whole body so quickly? I know how to treat her for the fleas as well as treating my home and I plan to take her to the vet ASAP but I just wanted to know if the reaction can be so severe from one flea. I’m sure it could have been more than one flea but I searched her thoroughly and combed her and didn’t find anything else. Her diet didn’t change and she didn’t go anywhere different . If anyone has had a similar issue please share your insight, thanks.

    • Estelle W. says:

      Hi Teresa – thanks so much for your kind comment. I know from experience that if you see one flea, there are hundreds you don’t see. It’s certainly possible they bit your dog all over and you only found the one. Going forward, I would highly recommend keeping your dog on a once-monthly flea treatment since it will prevent fleas from biting. That being said, the world of allergies is a complicated one, and just like humans, dogs can develop allergies overnight to something that didn’t bother them before. So really, it could be anything. Definitely take her to the vet and, if you wouldn’t mind updating us on what the vet finds, I’m sure it would be helpful to lots of people. Thanks again for reading and let us know what you find out!

    • Anne Brooke Vachalek says:

      Such a great article. Thank you for sharing. Some years ago I had a rescued airedale who suffered with horrific allergies. She had open bleeding areas she had itched and like your BooBoo would sometimes run as if to escape the horrific itching. It was heartbreaking. It was an ongoing issue. I so wish I knew all of this some 25 years ago when I had Abagail.
      BooBoo is fortunate to have you.

  13. Beth says:

    OMG, thank you soooo much. I have spent a fortune in vet bills trying to figure out what is wrong with my dog. I have another Boo Boo, only not as bad as your poor baby. It does tear your heart out. I am going to follow your advice and see if it helps.
    I can not thank you enough.

  14. Marie says:

    This was really informative! I adopted my dog from a rescue when he was 2 months. At about 2 years old, he started uncontrollably scratching and pulling out his fur on his lower back and feet. At the time, his vet said he was allergic to fleas and wanted us to bring him in weakly to get cortisone shots at the tune of $80 a shot. At the time i was in high school and my mom was the only one with a job so we looked for alternative methods. We did the oatmeal baths weekly (although I felt the oatmeal made it worse) flea meds religiously and we bug bombed all the time! About 5 months ago, I was reading an article about the dog food we give him and that it contains A LOT of plastic. Now that I’m older and have a job, I decided to take on all his expensive needs. So after some research and a talk with a new vet, I switched him to a grain and gluten free dog food and occasionally a bland free diet. His scratching has decreased to just when he has fleas which makes me happy! Now I just have to conquer the battle against the fleas!!!

    • Annie M says:

      Hi Marie, We all do monthly flea preventatives (as a safeguard because our dogs come to the office with us) and that keeps the fleas away completely. Maybe try putting on flea meds spring through summer every 30 days? So happy to hear your dog’s allergies responded to the change in diet, that’s great!

    • Judy says:

      If you use cedar oil spray you will not have a problem with fleas

  15. Jim Stanley says:

    Thanks for the info. You don’t say if you used oral or dermal steroids. I’m going tou rub on a weak over the counter hydrocortisone ointment for a start.

  16. Dog lover says:

    Great information. My dog came back from the sitter a itchy mess with fleas. This helps tremendously!

  17. Pat Obrian says:


    Your article contained the most helpful information on canine skin allergies I have found. Thank you for sharing
    your knowledge and experience. I mistakenly added treats and wet food to my newly adopted dogs that knew only a life of Science Diet. My big bad caused them to itch like crazy. My desire to win their love through tastier food has created a nightmare. No more treats and a vet visit are tomorrow will hopefully restore my regrettable actions. Thanks again, Estelle

  18. Maria Carroll says:

    I have 3 four legged babies and my vet has them all on Vectra-3D. It not only kills fles, their eggs and ticks, but mosquitoes, and several other bugs. I have never found a flew or tick on any of my babies.

  19. Robert Keit says:

    Thank you for the insight on dog skin allergies, it gave me a lot of ideas.

  20. Pets r Family says:

    great blog, thank you and keep it up!