Lesson 3: Seeking Help and Diagnosis

If you notice the symptoms of atopic dermatitis in your dog, you should talk to your vet. While not inherently painful, atopy can be very distressing and uncomfortable for dogs, as any eczema suffer will tell you.

A suspicion of atopy is not an emergency, and you can usually wait to see your usual vet. However, if your dog is non-stop itching and uncomfortable, you may need to see an out-of-hours vet for symptomatic treatment.

If your faithful friend has already been diagnosed with atopic dermatitis, you can skip this lesson, although the topics at the end might be useful to you.

Navigating the Vet Visit: Effective Communication and Expectations

Let’s take a look at what happens during vet visits when you and your vet suspect atopy. This might be less helpful to some, in which case feel free to skip – but even if your dog has an atopy diagnosis it might be a good reminder of what’s important for your vet to hear, and what isn’t.

Listen to the audio below to hear from our vet:

The first visit

It’s likely your vet will have some suspicion of atopy from the information you give to the receptionist and your dog’s history. Make sure you mention any symptoms when you book an appointment so they can be prepared!

Often, the first visit is to try to settle your dog’s symptoms and get immediate relief. Your vet may have time to talk the possible atopy diagnosis through, but they may not. Regardless, make sure you give your vet details of

  • The symptoms your dog is experiencing
  • When the symptoms started
  • Whether they’ve got worse or stayed about the same
  • Anything you’ve tried at home and whether it made a difference
  • Whether you’ve noticed any seasonality to the symptoms.

Listen to the audio notes below to hear a concise version of a history that gives your vet all the information they initially need.

Audio over pic of a pug: Bella has been licking and chewing at her feet for about a month now, you can see the fur has all gone pink from her constantly doing it. It’s not getting any worse. Now I think back, I remember her doing it last summer, too.

Audio over a pic of a cockapoo: Max has been scratching at his ear again and I’m suspicious of another ear infection. It’s mostly the right ear, but a bit on the left. It started last week and has got worse and worse. This is his third one in six months and I’m wondering if something else is going on…”

Audio over a pic of a labrador: Juno’s been really itchy and I’ve noticed her armpits looking red and sore. It started about a fortnight ago. I gave her a bath and it made it slightly better but it got worse again straight away. She’s never had this before. (ROSIE)

Diagnosing Atopic Dermatitis

Diagnosing atopic dermatitis can be a slow process. There is no perfect test for it – in fact, it’s a ‘diagnosis of exclusion’, which means everything else needs to be ruled out before atopic dermatitis is diagnosed.

This flow chart helps to identify what your vet will do when testing for allergies

Explore this presentation for more information about each of the tests your vet may do.

(physical exam, check for parasites/parasite treatment, derm tests, food diet trial)

What about allergy tests?

There are a lot of allergy tests on the market that claim they can diagnose your pet’s allergies from a sample of spit or fur.

Unfortunately these are unreliable. Studies comparing the results from these tests to dogs with known allergies have shown the results are unreliable. Eg:

  • There is no clear difference in results between known-allergic and known-healthy dogs (Vovk et al 2019)
  • Results from synthetic hair and sterile saline instead of saliva were similar to those from real dogs (Bernstein et al 2019)

There are allergy tests available for environmental allergies. These can be done intradermally, or with blood tests, so you will need a vet to help. However, they aren’t suitable for diagnosing allergies, or for ruling in/out food allergies. Instead, they’re used to help guide treatment.


When you go to the vet with your concerns, it helps if you can tell them a bit about your pet’s history of similar problems. Try to answer their questions honestly, it will help narrow down the possibilities. AD is a ‘diagnosis of exclusion’ which means your vet will have to rule out other causes of your dog’s symptoms before they can diagnose your dog with AD. There are lots of tests to do this.

Key Takeaway

Vets can’t test for atopic dermatitis. Instead, they have to rule out everything else that could cause the same symptoms.

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