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By Statler Willand
18th July 2022

sensitive skin, allergies, or atopic dermatitis?

Reviewed by Dr. Ailsa Rutherford
Monday 18th July 2022

If you notice patches of dry, irritated and itchy skin on your furry friend, figuring out the cause can be tricky since there is considerable overlap in the symptoms of different skin disorders, but is essential to better understand and treat the condition.

Let’s take a closer look at the causes of itchy skin; the symptoms and recommended treatments.

Sensitive skin vs Atopic Dermatitis vs Allergies – What’s the difference?

Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin isn’t a specific disease that a vet can diagnose your pet with. It’s usually a symptom of

  • a lack of vital nutrients from the diet that keep the skin healthy and the skin barrier strong
  • damage to the skin by sea salt or sun exposure or excessive drying (e.g. from using harsh chemical shampoos or washing your pet too often)
  • another underlying condition such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease;
  • Parasites such as fleas, sand flies or mosquitoes

When skin is sensitive, it means things your pet comes into contact with can cause more irritation than is normal, leaving your pet with itchy rashes, but this is not a true allergy.


An allergy, also known as a ‘hypersensitivity reaction’ or a ‘hypersensitivity response’ is an abnormal immune response to a foreign substance in the body, known as an antigen. When the immune system detects this antigen one of several different responses is initiated. Most of the more common allergic reactions we see in our pets fall into either type I (immediate) or type IV (delayed) hypersensitivity reactions

The symptoms that result can include respiratory symptoms such as sneezing, congestion, runny nose, coughing, or wheezing. Other symptoms can include itchy, watery eyes, hives, swelling, and red, itchy skin.

Type I reactions - immediate hypersensitivity – develop less than an hour after exposure to the allergen). These are immunoglobulin-mediated (immunoglobulin is another name for antibody.) Antigen binds to immunoglobulin E (IgE) that is bound to tissue mast cells and blood basophils, triggering the release of preformed mediators, such as histamine, which cause vasodilation, increased capillary permeability, mucus hypersecretion, smooth muscle spasm, and tissue infiltration with inflammatory cells. Atopic Dermatitis falls into this category of allergies.

Type IV reactions - delayed hypersensitivity - occurs 48–72 hours after exposure to the allergen. This reaction does not involve antibodies. Instead, eosinophils, monocytes, or lymphocytes called T cells are activated by the antigen, leading to similar symptoms. Contact allergies and drug hypersensitivities fall into this category

Atopic Dermatitis

Atopic dermatitis is a specific type of allergy - it is an exaggerated IgE-mediated immune response, type I hypersensitivity

Atopic dermatitis causes chronic, inflammatory and pruritic skin disease primarily associated with the antibodies created in response to environmental allergens like pollen, mites, moulds, fungi, bacteria, and some foods.

Confusingly, atopic dermatitis has some of the same symptoms as other skin disorders. Itching and scratching, even excessively, are the primary symptoms of atopic dermatitis, followed by occasional coughing, sneezing, or asthma. The itching can be general itchiness over the entire body or localised to certain areas such as the face, ears, armpits, front legs, and feet.

The disease is generally diagnosed with three aspects in focus: ruling out other skin conditions with clinical signs similar to or overlapping with atopic dermatitis, a detailed interpretation of the clinical features of atopic dermatitis, and results of intradermal allergy testing versus allergen-specific IgE serum testing.

 Characteristics of each condition

Atopic Dermatitis

Other Allergies

●      A chronic, pruritic skin disease with flare-ups caused by a variety of allergens

●      A condition caused by dietary, environmental, or seasonal allergens

●      Itching and scratching are primary symptoms

●      Coughing, sneezing, wheezing, and asthma can be symptoms

●      General itchiness, red, inflamed skin, hives

●      Vomiting, diarrhea

●      Swelling of face, ears, lips

●      Itchy, runny eyes, chronic ear infections, sneezing

●      No cure, chronic in nature

●      Treatments can include medications, supplements, skin products, and dietary changes

●      No cure, but not necessarily chronic

●      Allergy medications, supplements, dietary changes, and other products are used for treatment


For more information about atopic dermatitis, please read Atopic Dermatitis in Dogs: Causes and Treatment.

Treatment Options

Although there is no cure for atopic dermatitis or other allergies, the symptoms can be managed through various treatment modalities, depending on the type, cause and severity of symptoms seen in your pet. These include:

  • avoiding the things that are known to trigger an allergic reaction
  • dietary changes
  • medications
  • supplements
  • topical products

Your veterinarian can help advise the best treatment options for you and your animal.

Dietary Changes

Your veterinarian may recommend a change in diet – either to a low allergen one as this can help even if your pet isn’t allergic to their current food or as part of an elimination diet to try to isolate specific food allergens. If your pet does have a true food allergy and their symptoms are reduced or disappear entirely after their diet changes, then re-introducing food items over time can help pinpoint any specific food allergens.

It’s important to know that dietary changes take time; it usually takes 6-8 weeks of a new diet to see if it’s working and you may have to change your pet’s food several times before the allergen is identified. If a food allergen is determined and removed from your pet’s food and treats, their symptoms should lessen and eventually disappear.


Similar to people, medications such as antihistamines and anti-inflammatories are commonly used to combat allergic reactions in pets. These are commonly used for allergic reactions not related to the pet’s diet and perhaps not able to be treated through other means.

Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of histamine in your pet's body and can reduce allergy symptoms. Both topical and oral steroids can alleviate your pet’s itching, scratching, swelling, and other symptoms of allergic reactions or atopic dermatitis by reducing inflammation and lowering the immune system’s response. Other medications are available which have similar anti-inflammatory actions to steroids, but without some of the undesirable side effects. There are also cutting-edge treatments such as injections containing antibodies against the inflammatory mediators. These appear to be good safe, long-term options too.


Dietary supplements are a great way to boost your dog’s health and ensure they get all the nutrients they need to be healthy. In addition to promoting overall health, supplements can also have impressive benefits such as reducing allergies, managing symptoms of inflammatory skin conditions, calming pets and promoting gut health.

Hemp seed oil is an increasingly popular supplement for optimal skin health that could help boost your furry friend’s overall health and improve their allergy symptoms as the essential fatty acids in hemp seed oil are highly beneficial in forming and protecting your pet’s skin barrier. More on hemp seed oil health benefits in our article Hemp Seed Oil Benefits.

At BUDDYPET, we recommend treating your pet with some hemp inside and outside: Marley hemp seed oil to take daily with food and Poppy shampoo for dogs with itchy skin or Maisie shampoo for dogs with sensitive skin.

Other products

Countless other products are designed to gently exfoliate, moisturise, and refresh your pet’s skin. Whenever possible, choose organic and natural products. Your veterinarian may recommend a shampoo, spray, oil, wipe, or lotion to help treat and soothe your pet’s sensitive skin, allergies, or other skin conditions.

Should you see a veterinarian?

For pets suffering from either atopic dermatitis or allergy, there will certainly be times they need to see their veterinarian. Because these conditions have no cure, the treatments are often a lifelong commitment that will require regular vet visits during flare-ups or unusual reactions.

Your pet should see their veterinarian urgently if:

  • Their behaviour is unusual or concerning
  • Their symptoms worsen
  • Their normal treatment is no longer working
  • Their itching and scratching cause open wounds or sores
  • They have trouble breathing
  • They have a severe allergic reaction
  • They have swelling around their face, mouth, eyes, or ears
  • They have persistent vomiting and or diarrhea

Keeping your furry friend on a regular schedule with their vet helps the veterinary staff be familiar with your pet’s unique history and needs. Altogether, this will make your pet’s condition much more manageable and keep them in the best health possible.


Photo by Nicole Logan on Unsplash

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