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Allergy vs Irritant

January 24, 2021
Allergy vs Irritant

what does it look like in your dog, and when should you be concerned?

Have you ever cried while cutting onions; sneezed or had watery eyes while dusting; or even had itchy hands when picking certain food in a garden or weeds?

Most will answer YES!, so why is this so? Is it that you are allergic to these things or are they known irritants? Despite some who are allergic–these are known irritants. An irritant is something that usually has a chemical or particle that causes a reaction in the body to flush it away or wall it off to keep it out of the body. An allergy occurs when the body responds with higher immune system levels to react to a substance with an army of cells in the body designed to fight it off. There are many levels of allergic reaction, and sometimes irritant reactions and allergic reactions can look similar. If you can have these different reactions, don’t forget that this is exactly the same for us as it is for our dogs.

Most dogs are designed to avoid many of these by having a wonderful coat of fur that blocks many things from coming in contact with their skin, and they have a third eyelid, and thick calluses on their feet! However, that leaves just few a bits of our dogs that are still vulnerable. These areas are mostly their eyes, nose, mouth, ears, bottoms of their feet, and around their bum.

How can you tell the difference and when should you consult the veterinarian? This is a tough call, but there are certain things to watch for, and if you aren’t sure at all—always call the clinic. Let’s look at each of these areas:


Common irritants are seen when around plants or we move dust around the home (cleaning, turning on the heat or A/C in a forced air home, or furry friends that like to play with dust bunnies under the bed). However, these are also eye irritants: chemical exposure such as cleaning sprays, perfumes, deodorizers, plant/lawn treatments, and hair products. We will usually see extra tearing of the eyes, and maybe some rubbing, slight redness, and really no swelling. These tears are the body’s defense to flush away particles and they are good. You usually see BOTH eyes having a similar reaction. If only one eye is affected, this is not likely an allergy or irritant, please seek veterinary attention urgently. If these do not pass, these can advance to infections where the eye discharge is goopy, green or yellow. Normal discharge can be white or clear and wet, or dried brown or black, anything else is cause for concern.


Typically we may only see a few sneezes or runny clear nose for an irritant, and most irritants that affect the nose are the same as the eyes where this flushing is a good reaction from the body.


Drooling or salivating after licking or eating something noxious, this is usually short lived. Watch these closely for any progression of concern: coughing, vomiting, swelling.  This is a site where bug bites can occur as well, especially if you have a curious pup that likes to eat them.


Common irritants are insects and plant burrs. These irritants are usually focused on the ear flap and not the deep canal. Bug bites often cause similar problems as in humans. Plant burrs should be carefully removed to avoid increased trauma to the flap. Concerns of swelling, redness, smell, or discharge from the canal should be taken to the clinic to evaluate for allergies, infection, or other concerns.


The most common irritants to paws are plants, sap, ice, salt, and extreme cold or hot asphalt/sidewalks. Without booties on, these guys come in contact with all things they walk on. Some dogs do have allergies to plants, pollens, carpet fibers, and food, but most paw problems are irritants and result in soreness, redness, and even clumps of fur forming. Keep an eye on feet and what you are walking on with them as that changes with the weather.


As many dogs have less hair in this area, it makes it a primary target for insect bites, often as dogs will lay in grass in warm weather areas. Many bites cause red welts, some that are itchy and some the look horrendous, but aren’t even itchy. Always feel free to consult your veterinarian about spots. If the spots are irritating, one must monitor closely for the pet to leave them heal, so as not to cause an infection from licking or scratching excessively.


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This area can be a site for insect bites and “cling-ons” which can attract insects and cause skin irritation themselves. Mind the area is kept clean and if they are obsessing over the area, there are many medical concerns that occur there and can be checked by your veterinarian.

Chronic signs of irritation in certain areas, especially eyes, tail base, and feet can be a sign of food allergies; therefore involve your veterinarian for a plan. It is difficult to know the difference sometimes, and what to watch for. The number one thing to watch for is swelling. This can be a sign of the body mounting an attack, and this is a cue to go directly to the veterinarian. There can be a local reaction (limited to the area that was exposed) or a more dangerous systemic reaction-one that can spread to the whole body and even cause difficulty breathing.

As you may expect different allergies and irritants can change with the season, and mostly with the activity sites of the particular family. Be mindful of irritants being different than allergies, and work to avoid irritants whenever possible and remember the irritants at their level of the home may be different than ours (thanks Gravity!)