Hay Fever in people is a seasonal allergy to pollen that causes sneezing, a blocked or runny nose, itchy and watery eyes and an itchy throat. It is a common, life-long and often irritating condition that is managed with medication and minimising contact with pollen. Some dogs also suffer from pollen-related seasonal allergies. But their clinical signs are different to the human condition, with skin irritations being far more common in dogs than sneezing. This is also a life-long condition and is managed similarly to hay fever in people.

What causes hay fever in dogs?

Hay fever in both dogs and people is an allergy to pollen produced by grass, trees and weeds. In dogs, we tend to use the term “pollen allergy” rather than hay fever. So as not to get confused with the (slightly different) human condition. Pollen allergies in dogs are often part of a broader allergic condition called Atopic Dermatitis, which affects as many as 10% of dogs.

Dogs with “hay fever” suffer an inappropriate and excessive immune reaction to pollen; which triggers the release of histamine and other inflammatory mediators. These chemicals within the body cause itchiness and redness in the skin. While a dog’s skin normally forms a barrier against allergens such as pollen, it’s believed that this barrier function is impaired in dogs with atopy and, presumably, those with hay fever.

The period from March through to September is often the most challenging for dogs with the condition; when the weather is warmer and there are more plants about. There can be significant local variations, with some owners of affected dogs finding that certain walking routes will aggravate their dog’s symptoms. Even with specialised tests, it can be very difficult to pin down the exact pollens that trigger the allergy.

What are the clinical signs of hay fever in dogs?

The clinical signs of hay fever in dogs differ from those in people. Even though the underlying cause is the same. Only about 1 in 5 dogs will have sore or red eyes, with sneezing being even less common. Instead, the majority suffer from skin irritation and changes. The severity of these signs varies considerably between dogs. Some are only mildly affected, while others get little relief from the irritation the allergy causes.

One of the earliest and commonest manifestations of a pollen allergy in dogs is excessive licking or chewing of the feet, along with rubbing or scratching of specific parts of the body. This is especially common around the ears, face, armpits, groin and the area around the bottom. These are not only more sensitive areas of skin, they are also usually not as hairy and more likely to come into contact with vegetation.

Over time, this irritation can develop into areas of reddened, thickened and infected skin as bacteria and yeast set up opportunistic infections. This may cause affected areas of the skin to become moist and smelly, driving further licking or scratching. Repeated ear infections are also very common in dogs with pollen allergies. Some affected dogs may break out in hives. Small red skin bumps which can pop up right across the body and can be quite itchy or scab over.

Clinical signs of hay fever usually first develop before a dog turns three. They often worsen over time. Although seasonal weather variations can cause the severity of clinical signs to fluctuate, as happens in people.

Are the clinical signs the same in every dog?

The severity of hay fever in dogs varies considerably between individuals. Every dog with this condition displays a different mix of clinical signs which affect them to varying extents. 

Any dog can be affected by hay fever. But some breeds are particularly prone, with Retrievers, Boxers, German Shepherds, West Highland White Terriers, French Bulldogs and Pugs among the most commonly affected breeds. A dog’s breed may also influence the specific clinical signs seen. For example, some breeds may be more likely to suffer from hives or ear problems. Whereas others experience more extensive areas of skin redness and itchiness. French Bulldogs seem to experience an earlier onset of the condition, with clinical signs seen from 6 months of age. Female dogs are more likely than males to suffer from hay fever. And dogs whose parents suffer from the condition are also more likely to develop it themselves.

How is hay fever in dogs diagnosed?

Although seasonal allergies are common in dogs, they can be frustrating to diagnose and treat, partly because the clinical signs overlap with those of many other different skin problems. While there are specialised blood tests that can help diagnose a pollen allergy in your dog, your vet will first want to rule out other common problems that can cause skin irritation – such as parasites, infections, or food and contact allergies. Once the condition has been diagnosed, regular checks are required to monitor your dog’s response to treatment, which means that in some cases the diagnosis and treatment of seasonal allergies can be lengthy and expensive.

How is hay fever in dogs managed?

Like Hay Fever in people, pollen allergies are a life-long problem in dogs and so the first thing to bear in mind is that treatment is not designed to cure this condition but to bring it under control. Most dogs will respond well to treatment, although a few will always remain a little itchier than normal. Management of hay fever involves three interrelated strategies: reducing contact with pollens, boosting the skin barrier, and controlling the itchiness.

Reducing contact with pollens 

This will lessen the allergic challenge that is the cause of hay fever. This might involve, for example, not taking your dog out on days when the pollen count is high, bathing their feet after a walk, keeping your lawn short and avoiding walks with lots of vegetation.

Boosting the skin barrier

This involves giving Essential Fatty Acid dietary supplements or regularly using special shampoos, sprays or mousses to improve and maintain the skin’s natural defences against pollens. This soothes the skin, controls the amount of pollen that triggers the allergy and fights the infections that make it worse.

Controlling the itchiness with medication is necessary in all but the mildest cases. 

This can vary from short courses of anti-histamines in the very mildest cases to longer courses of treatment with drugs designed to block the abnormal immune reaction or the itch response it causes. There are several options, each with their own particular strengths; your vet will be able to guide you through the different treatments and find the most appropriate one for your dog.

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