Atopic dermatitis is an allergic reaction that triggers itchiness in cats and dogs. Much like human “hay fever” it is caused by a sensitivity to environmental substances, such as pollen, mold, and dust mites. Food allergies can also result in atopic dermatitis, however, it is important to note that true food allergies are exceedingly rare and, despite popular misconceptions, are rarely in response to grains. Management of symptoms can often be challenging and often requires a multi-modal approach. 


The most common symptom is extreme itchiness, but you may also note:


Atopic dermatitis is often a diagnosis of rule-outs, meaning that other disease processes, such as skin mites, fleas, or a skin infection, need to be ruled out in order to diagnose atopic dermatitis. In addition to a thorough physical examination, your veterinarian may look for skin mites, examine a skin swab to look for signs of infection, and/or perform a culture to isolate specific bacterial or fungal organisms. Blood and urine testing may also be recommended to rule out underlying systemic disease. Once your pet has been diagnosed with atopic dermatitis, there are additional diagnostics that can be performed to help identify the allergic source(s), such as environmental allergy testing and/or a prescription hydrolyzed diet trial.


Treatment ultimately consists of trying to manage your pet’s response to the allergen(s) through various immunomodulatory therapies. There are a variety of options available, ranging from immunosuppressants, such as prednisone and cyclosporine, to anti-itch medication, such as Apoquel and Cytopoint. Some pets with environmental allergies may also benefit from allergen-specific immunotherapy to help desensitize them to known allergens that were identified based on blood or skin allergy testing. Where possible, avoiding the known allergens may also be helpful. This isn’t always possible with environmental allergens but can be a very successful strategy for managing food allergies.