Allergic Reaction to your Dog’s Kisses?

Have you had an allergic reaction to your dog’s tongue?

Contact dog allergen with a dog's tongue
Rash, hives or swelling when a dog licks you? Read on for an allergist’s plan to help!

I recently read your post on dogs and allergies and I have a somewhat silly question: Can you be allergic just to a dog’s tongue? I don’t have any allergy symptoms like what you described in the article but whenever a dog licks me I get hives in that area. Is that an allergy?
 
Thanks and keep writing these helpful articles!
Kathy S

Kathy,

This is a GREAT question!  When it comes to dogs and allergies, getting a rash when licked is actually pretty common (and thanks to your email, we can help everyone who has allergies to their dog’s tongue)!

Treating a Dog Contact Allergy

In my article on treating dog allergies, I gave you a plan to treat traditional dog allergy symptoms: an itchy, runny, sneezy, or stuffy nose as well as itchy, watery or red eyes. It’s a plan to help you with dog allergies.

What you are describing is not a traditional dog allergy but something called contact urticaria – hives, swelling and redness due to contact with a dog.  This type of reaction is considered to be a local skin reaction and needs to be treated differently than traditional allergy symptoms.

What’s makes contact allergies different?

If you remember, the cause of a traditional allergy is an whole-body immune response (the IgE antibody) to a trigger.  The dog allergen usually triggers an allergic reaction starting in the and from there it can cause both nose and eye symptoms.

In a dog contact allergy, the entire immune system is not usually activated. Instead, there is a more localized immune response that is limited to where the dog licked you.  It is still an immune response to the dog allergen, but it is just on the skin where the dog licked you.

Treating a dog contact allergy

Since a dog contact allergy is a local reaction, the best treatment is usually local as well.  Your best strategy to treat a dog contact allergy is:

  1. First – wash the area as soon as you can after contact.
    • If you catch it early enough, you might not need any additional treatment.
    • Usually you only need to wash with soap and water. Harsher chemicals or detergents can cause MORE of a problem.
    • If the dog licked your eyes (which happens to a surprising number of my patients) then try to rinse the area with water and/or a wash cloth.
  2. Second – if the area starts to swell or itch, you can consider a cold compress or a bag of green peas (which are known to have the most restorative property of any frozen vegetable bag).
    • This does NOT stop the allergic reaction (which is why you washed the area first).
    • Instead, it helps the with symptom relief (itching, redness, warmth).
    • It also can help reduce swelling (although, as I write below, it is hard to reduce the swelling).
  3. Third, take an antihistamine
    • This is the only way to treat the reaction internally and help reduce swelling
    • Any antihistamine will work (see my post on the best OTC antihistamines to choose).

 

What about topical medications?

If you’re like most people, you might want to add either a topical antihistamine (like a Benadryl/diphenhydramine cream) or a topical steroid (like hydrocortisone). While you would normally be correct to think “topical cream for a skin issue,” most topical medications are minimally effective for a dog contact allergy.

If you did want to try a cream, I’d recommend you start with a topical Benadryl/diphenhydramine cream.  It is probably most likely to help.  And it definitely won’t hurt.

Most topical medications are actually minimally effective for a dog contact allergy

My feeling as an allergist is:  if I were about to be stranded on a desert island and could only take one medication with me to treat a dog contact allergy, it wouldn’t be these medications.  But if you don’t live on a desert island (or can bring multiple medications with you before getting stranded) then every little bit helps!

treating dogs and allergies by treating dog allergen
I don’t understand – is this guy in winter clothing about to steal this woman’s toy dog? #BestStockPhotoEver!

What can you do to reduce the swelling?

When it comes to dog contact allergies, there is often a lot of swelling (called edema) present where the dog licks you.  If this swelling happens in the face or around the eyes it can often be a lot of swelling (the face, hands and feet are “looser” tissues and as a result swelling spreads more than if you get licked on, say, the arm or leg).

If you have a lot of swelling:

  1. The first step is to remove yourself from contact with the dog allergen!
  2. That’s it.  There is no step 2.

The swelling is actually caused by fluid being leaked from the blood vessels in response to the contact allergy.  This reaction will continue until the dog allergen is removed.  And once the dog allergen is removed (and area washed off) then the blood vessels will stop leaking fluid and the reaction will stop.

Unfortunately, this means that any fluid trapped in the skin will get stuck there and will take time to reabsorb. There’s really nothing we are able to do to speed this up (antihistamines don’t speed this along either…  you just have to wait).

Should you call yourself allergic to dogs?

Yes. Even thought it is a topical reaction, you should tell people you have a contact allergy to dogs.

Do allergy shots help with this?

I added this section because I have had a fair number of people see me with dogs and allergies and want to know if allergy shots can fix their reactions.

 

For a dog contact allergy, the answer to whether allergy shots help is: maybe.

 

Allergy shots do a GREAT job at fixing the traditional nose and eye symptoms. They also do a great job treating allergic asthma and insect allergies. But remember, this is a contact allergy with localized symptoms.

What I tell people is that allergy shots might help reduce your dog contact allergy symptoms, but it is unlikely to completely fix them.

So if you had bad seasonal allergies as well as a dog contact allergy and wanted shots to fix everything, then perfect!  Your allergy shots should fix your seasonal allergies and reduce your dog contact allergy as well!  But if you wanted shots only for contact allergies… I’d question whether other options might be better for you.

 

Other Questions?

Did that answer all your questions?

If you have other or more specific questions, please ask me!  I will give you the right answers and give you personalized information you can use!

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