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Do You and Your Dog Share the Same Allergies?

Environment and lifestyle can affect the immune system of dogs and people.

Vladimir Kudinov photo — Creative Commons License CC0
Source: Vladimir Kudinov photo — Creative Commons License CC0

"Let me tell you how strong the bond is between Mayfield and Wayne." We were at a casual dinner party and the Wayne that the woman was referring to was her husband, while Mayfield was their yellow Labrador Retriever. She continued, "Well, in hot weather Wayne gets these allergic skin rashes, usually in places where there are skin creases, like elbows and armpits. That's why he wears long sleeves even on the hottest days. Now don't you just know that Mayfield has now developed these same kinds of allergic skin conditions? His veterinarian has prescribed for him the same skin cream and oral medication that Wayne's doctors have him on. That's going beyond mere empathy in terms of human-dog bonding don't you think?"

Wayne didn't even look mildly uncomfortable as members of the group chuckled, and asked questions like "Do you think that the problem is that you and Mayfield are eating the same kind of kibble?"

While this was merely a bit of harmless banter, some recent research coming out of Finland suggests that a shared environment actually predisposes dogs to having some of the same physical problems that humans do. It turns out that genetically, dogs and humans are quite similar, having about 95% of their DNA in common (compare this to mice which only have about 90% common DNA with people). However, and perhaps even more important, is the fact that dogs are exposed to the same living environment and lifestyle as their owners.

Recently the focus of allergy research has shifted to the role of microbiota, which is the diverse collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms that are found on our skin, in our mouths, nose, gut — just about everywhere. The microbiota varies depending upon the environment that we live in, the kinds of activities that we engage in, who and what we come in contact with, and where we conduct most of our activities. The microbiota interacts with and alters the effectiveness of our immune system. It is, of course, the reaction of our immune system, triggered by things that we encounter in our environment, which is ultimately responsible for our allergic symptoms.

A recent study by a team of researchers from the University of Helsinki, headed by Emma Hakanen, observed that some research has shown that people who live in cities and other urbanized areas, are more likely to have various skin, food, and respiratory allergies than their rural counterparts. Since pet dogs are so physiologically similar to humans, and also since they share our living conditions, these scientists wondered if these same kinds of differences, triggered by living environment, could be found in the allergic susceptibilities of dogs.

The research team opened a website and promoted it through various agencies, such as breed organizations. It was a long, complex survey involving close to 100 items. These items asked dog owners to report on where they lived, how agricultural or urban their environment was, and their lifestyle (such as how much time they spent outdoors). They were also asked to describe any allergy related symptoms that they observed in their dogs and in themselves. The final data set had 5,722 dogs from 258 different breeds. The ages of the dogs varied from three months to 18 years.

Analysis of the resulting data set revealed results which tended to mimic those reported from studies on human allergy research. Dogs living in more urban settings had more skin and food allergies (dogs seldom show allergy symptoms associated with the lower respiratory tract). The more outdoor activities the dog was allowed to engage in the fewer the allergy symptoms. A highly agricultural lifestyle, involving lots of outdoor exposure, contact with farm animals, higher levels of activity, exposure to grass, dirt, and drinking from open waterways, and so forth, produced the lowest rates of allergic responses. However simply spending more time outdoors and engaging in more outdoor activities also seem to buffer canines and humans against the onset of allergies. Most importantly, the data showed that the allergy symptoms in the dogs and the dog owners showed themselves concurrently. In other words, the same conditions that were causing the urban dogs to have allergic symptoms were likely also the same conditions causing their owners to show their allergy-related problems.

The best guess is that in a more rural environment people are exposed to lots of different microbes in small controlled doses. The constant exposure to these agents causes low-level responses by the immune system. Fighting these small battles gradually strengthens the immune system because it is called into play often, but in manageable situations. The broader and more constant the exposure is to such environmental microbial agents makes the immune systems of both the dogs and owners stronger.

This notion of many small encounters with potential allergic triggers might help to explain the somewhat odd finding that the severity of allergies in humans and canines were lower in larger families (with more than two children). Having lived in such a family situation I can certainly attest that each child added to the household tends to track additional amounts of different substances into the house. Of course, these are the agents which the immune systems of all human and canine denizens of the house then have to learn how to cope with.

So, based on this data, it does seem likely that a dog owner can share the same allergies as his dog. If they both want to reduce the number of their allergy symptoms then perhaps the best strategy is to move out of the city into a more rural setting. Failing that, the suggestion from this research team is that more time and activities outdoors would be helpful.

However, in response to the gentle ribbing that Wayne was getting about his shared allergies with his dog, Mayfield, Wayne smiled and offered "Perhaps it's because we drink the same brand of beer."

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Emma Hakanen, Jenni Lehtimäki, Elina Salmela, Katriina Tiira, Johanna Anturaniemi, Anna Hielm-Björkman, Lasse Ruokolainen & Hannes Lohi (2018). Urban environment predisposes dogs and their owners to allergic symptoms. Scientific Reports, DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-19953-3

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