Battling Skin Issues in Dogs (Immune Therapy)
So, you’ve gone to the vet because Rover has been itching like crazy and the diagnosis comes back as a skin allergy. Now that we’ve diagnosed what’s going on with Rover, how do we treat his skin allergies?
First we need to prevent the immune system from attacking the skin. But how do we do that? What we need to do at this point is prevent the over stimulation of the immune system. One of the main courses of action is to introduce Immune Therapy.
But what is Immune Therapy? To put it simply, the idea is to get the immune system over exposed to the allergens that stimulate it to a point of oversaturation so the body is tricked into thinking that these allergens are normal. This results in the body not reacting to said allergens which in turn boosts the body’s natural defenses against the allergen.
But the first thing that we need to do before we can treat Rover is figure out the exact thing allergen his body is having a reaction to. There are two main ways of finding what Rover is allergic to:
Blood test: we look for antibodies against things in the environment in the animal's blood.
Skin test: We inject allergen extracts in the skin and evaluate the response. This test is only available through dermatology clinics.
So, now that we know what Rover's body is reacting to, we can formulate an extract of these allergens and we inject Rover with them. The usual protocol is one injection every 4 days for 40 days (10 injections), then we use one injection a week. Many pet’s allergies are then controlled by 1 injection every couple of weeks for maintenance.
As with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages to this method of treatment.
The advantages of Immune Therapy are that Rover won’t be taking any medication to supress his immune system. In fact, we are stimulating his immune system to respond normally to the allergen.
One disadvantage is that it only works on 60% of pets. 40% of pets we try Immune Therapy on will not show any improvement to their allergies and will need an alternative treatment. But we can only determine which pets will respond and which will not after testing and using the injections for 10 months. So unfortunately, there is a bit of a trial and error method to this process.
Another disadvantage to Immune Therapy is not a quick fix. Immune therapy takes months to build up so when Rover is presented for itching we have to use other methods to control the itch while the immune therapy is in its beginning phases.
There is also a third factor that can be a disadvantage - timing. If the pet has received any steroids by mouth, injection or topically, within weeks it affects the test results. The problem is that many animals will have received these medications since they are the most effective way of reducing the itch in the short term (injections and topical relief generally relieve the itch within hours). So, sometimes, it is difficult to find the right time. The best time is when an allergy is "off season", which is usually November to January.
Although it may seem like a tedious and overwhelming process, the payoff in the long run is well worth the effort and time.