Holistic Solutions for your Dog’s Allergies
The Alternative to Steroids

from Fetch Magazine, June 2008

For years, Nancy struggled with the health of her beloved rescue dog, Stanley. Stanley, a golden retriever, suffered from a number of severe allergies causing him to scratch the sides of his body until they were raw. Stanley also developed weepy lesions on his skin causing his coat to stink and feel gooey to the touch.

Nancy attempted to treat his allergies with a number of different remedies. She went to a traditional veterinarian and was given prednisone, a corticosteroid, to treat the constant itching. The pharmaceuticals caused Stanley to develop polyuria/polydipsia (PU/PD), which is characterized by the passage of large volumes of urine and excessive thirst. The PU/PD led to frequent “accidents.” Nancy also tried using numerous topical medicines, but found little relief for her suffering dog.

After two frustrating years, a friend of Nancy’s suggested that she explore some holistic options to relieve Stanley’s allergies. Nancy followed the advice and visited Christine Bessent, D.V.M. Dr. Bessent recommended a formula of Chinese herbs called Herbsmith Clear AllerQi ® and acupuncture. This herbal formula is specifically designed to treat dogs’ severe allergies. Nancy found this remedy to be very effective with none of the negative side effects that she encountered with traditional pharmaceutical treatments. Nancy is now happy to report that Stanley’s allergies have been under control for over a year. She is approaching the upcoming allergy season without the anxiety that she had in previous years.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

There are many pharmaceutical options on the market that promise quick results, but the ensuing side effects can be worse than the allergic condition they are intended to treat. Dr. Bessent, founder of Herbsmith, Inc., says there is an alternative way to address problems like these. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a more natural, holistic approach to veterinary care, has proven to be successful for thousands of years.

“Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches us that allergies, like all medical conditions, are symptoms of an underlying disharmony within the body,” Dr. Bessent says. “To effectively treat the problem, you must first address the underlying disharmony that is causing the allergy to occur.”

An allergy is a hypersensitive reaction to an allergen (from a food or an inhalant). These allergens cause the body’s defenses to overreact, which leads to the overheating of a dog’s body. Some of the associated symptoms include itchy and reddened skin, panting, and restlessness. TCM states that the combination of warm (the heat of allergies) and cool (the dog’s body temperature) often creates a condition of “wind” within the body, which is what often causes fiercely itchy skin. Another way that allergies can affect a dog’s body is through the accumulation of phlegm. All of these symptoms (heat, phlegm, and wind) stem from an imbalance in the dog’s liver, referred to as “Liver Qi stagnation”. According to TCM, the liver is the organ responsible for the smooth flow of Qi (pronounced “chee”), which is the body’s overall life-force. The liver acts as a “pump” to produce the smooth flow of energy throughout the entire body. When that pump “overheats” as a result of an allergic reaction, the vital fluids within the body evaporate and phlegm starts to accumulate. The accumulation of phlegm causes the dog’s coat to give off a foul odor and become greasy or gooey.

Any imbalance within the body can be explained using the model of “yin and yang”, which is at the base of all TCM theory. Yin and yang both exist within the body at all times. “Yin” represents the concepts of cooling, fluids, quietness, and passive behavior. “Yang” represents the concepts of heat, inflammation, outward energy, and aggressive behavior. A healthy animal will have a perfect balance between the two forces. According to TCM, any imbalance of the two is regarded as a disease. From this perspective, allergies are commonly seen as an excess of yang (heat) in the body causing the allergic hypersensitivity. Dr. Bessent compares the body of an allergic dog to a boiling pot of water. “In order to stop the boiling of the water, you can either turn down the heat or add more water to the pot.” Herbsmith Clear AllerQi ® contains cooling herbs that bring down the yang (or heat) within the body and yin tonifying herbs that increase the fluids of the body overall, bringing the dog’s body back to a balanced state. Herbs used in TCM focus on a holistic way of treating diseases. In the case of canine allergies, they work to bring down the heat within the body, thus reducing inflammation of the skin and accumulation of phlegm. Unlike traditional pharmaceuticals, the herbs address the root cause of the allergy while still relieving the associated symptoms.

Types of Allergies

The two most common allergies found among dogs are to foods and inhalants. Each of these allergy types affects a dog differently, but they can be addressed using the same theories. There are some very simple steps that can be taken to decrease the severity of your dog’s reaction.

When someone suspects that his or her dog has food allergies, the most important step is identifying the food or foods that are causing the reaction. It order to do so, the allergic dog should be reverted to a very bland diet such as rice and boiled hamburger or chicken. After all signs of past reactions have ceased, foods that the dog had eaten previously should be slowly reincorporated into the dog’s diet, one by one. Allergic reactions can take anywhere from a few hours to several days to appear, so if the dog is showing no signs of an allergic reaction after one week of eating a particular food, an additional food should be reintroduced. During this process, if the dog starts to show signs of a reaction (such as diarrhea, vomiting, gurgly stomach, or skin irritations), the most recently incorporated food is revealed as the allergen (or one of the allergens). That food should be permanently eliminated from the dog’s diet. If someone is seeking an easier way to diagnose your dog’s allergies, allergens can be detected through specific allergy blood testing.

Another type of allergy common among dogs occurs as a result of environmental or inhaled allergens. These allergies occur when dogs breathe in particles such as mold, dust mites, dander, and pollens of grasses and trees which can result in painful, itchy skin irritations. “We could inhale the same pollens and not have any reaction, but allergic dogs have a propensity to develop hypersensitivity causing their whole bodies to become inflamed,” Dr. Bessent says. “This disharmony is a result of too much heat and inflammation.”

Western medicine looks solely at physical allergy symptoms such as itching, scratching and lesions, whereas TCM also recognizes the less obvious symptoms such as restlessness, irritability and panting. All of these signs indicate an allergic reaction, which reveals the underlying issue of Liver Qi stagnation. In addition to using herbs, Liver Qi stagnation can be treated using traditional Chinese approaches like acupuncture and food therapy.

Food therapy, when combined with other approaches, can be a very effective way to treat allergies in dogs. Chinese medical theory states that food is like a medicine. The old adage that “you are what you eat” applies here. Food is classified as having various properties such as cooling, warming, etc. Allergic dogs should eat cooling foods such as fish, duck and rabbit. The cooling foods help to bring down the inflammation throughout the body. Foods like venison and lamb are considered the warmest of proteins and, to an allergic dog, would greatly increase the heat in the body and the allergic reaction. Cooling foods include duck, fish, rabbit, whitefish, cod, string beans, celery, banana, apple, pear, barley, brown rice, broccoli, flax seed oil and yogurt. Incorporating cooling foods into an allergic dog’s diet will help to resolve the underlying disharmony that is causing the reaction.

A Holistic Approach

Generally, when people see their dogs begin to itch, their response has been to visit a veterinarian who would typically advise the owner to put the dog on antihistamines and corticosteroids. However, this approach may not be the best for the animal in the long run. “Corticosteroids work great the first year by bringing down the itching,” Dr. Bessent says. “The dog feels great and only has to take a small amount. However, steroids damage the liver over time.”

The consequences of using corticosteroids can accumulate relatively quickly. During the next allergy season the dog often has more extensive allergies and the symptoms are more extreme. Instead of allergies starting in August and September when ragweed is at its height, the allergies start in July and extend into late October. The itching increases and the dog develops more lesions. To quell the symptoms, the dog is given more steroids and antihistamines, and the cycle of symptom suppression continues. In addition, the long-term use of traditional pharmaceuticals causes damage to the liver, creating an even greater imbalance within the body. After years of treatment, the dog is typically allergic to just about everything. Allergies often continue into the dead of winter and can extend through the entire year.

Chinese herbs address the problem from a holistic point of view. In the early stages, the dog will respond quickly to the herbs. However, when the liver is damaged over the course of several years with steroids, it becomes more difficult to resolve the underlying disharmony. At that point, herbs can certainly be used to resolve the issue, but the treatment typically takes more time.

Dr. Bessent started Herbsmith as a way to bring her years of experience formulating veterinary herbal blends to a larger group of pet owners. Her product line includes remedies for various different ailments in canines and equines. Herbsmith Clear AllerQi ® offers a combination of herbs with cooling and yin-tonifying properties to decrease inflammation and restore balance in the dog’s Qi without damaging the liver.

The most important idea to remember about Chinese herbal blends is that they do not just treat the symptoms of allergies. They address the root imbalance, making for a happier, healthier dog.

“It’s really about the underlying disharmony,” Bessent says, “And when you resolve that, the symptoms of the allergies go away.”