Apoquel is the commercial name for oclacitinib maleate, a drug which suppresses the itching sensation caused by dermatitis. In this article we take an in depth and impartial look at the anti-itching drug Apoquel. Let’s find out who is using Apoquel for dogs, and what they are using it for.
We’ll pick apart the facts from the hyperbole. We’ll see what vets and dog owners thought since it hit the market just a few years ago. Hopefully in the end, we’ll help you decide whether to give Apoquel to your dog.
What is Apoquel for dogs?
The main active ingredient in Apoquel is oclacitinib. In simple terms it changes how the immune system acts. But let’s break that down a little bit more.
More specifically, when Apoquel enters the bloodstream it blocks particular enzymes called Janus kinases. They’re the real troublemakers when it comes to the itchiness and inflammation associated with atopic dermatitis.
When these enzymes are blocked, the amount of itchiness and inflammation decreases.
Itchy & Scratchy
When our dogs feel an itch, they tackle it in exactly the same way we do – by giving it a good scratch.
They do this using their feet, by rubbing against a satisfying-looking surface in your house, or even by chewing the niggly area with their teeth.
Unfortunately when dermatitis causes an itch that just won’t go away, repeating these behaviors over and over eventually damages the skin.
This causes painful lesions and setting up a vicious cycle of irritation which is hard to break.
Apoquel for dogs: quick links
Follow the links below to jump to more information about these common questions:
- Treating dog atopic dermatitis with Apoquel
- Treating dog allergic dermatitis with Apoquel
- Side effects of dog Apoquel
- Is Apoquel safe for dogs?
What is Apoquel used for in dogs?
So you might be wondering what conditions might warrant a course of Apoquel.
Vets prescribe Apoquel to control the itching associated with allergic dermatitis and atopic dermatitis.
In the first clinical trials of Apoquel there were 279 dogs who had benefited from receiving it. Following that trial, they were permitted to continue receiving it directly from the manufacturer until it became commercially available. This was under the FDA’s Long Term Compassionate Use rules.
Apoquel is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate in the United Kingdom.
It’s only obtainable with a vet’s prescription. So a trip to their surgery is a must.
Where does Apoquel come from?
Apoquel is the latest in a line of drugs used to help dogs with itchy skin caused by allergic or atopic dermatitis.
Zoetis releasd it in 2013. They are the animal medicine arm of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
So far no anti-itching drug (including Apoquel) has been created which is completely effective or completely free from side effects.
Zoetis developed Apoquel as an alternative for dogs who didn’t benefit from earlier drug therapies or who couldn’t tolerate their side effects.
Has Apoquel been tested?
Because Apoquel is relatively new, there hasn’t been much opportunity yet for tests to be carried out by scientists unaffiliated with Zoetis. That is, without any conflict of interest.
In Zoetis’ own tests, 186 out of 216 dogs with allergic or atopic dermatitis (86%) showed an improvement in symptoms within 30 days of taking Apoquel in a blind trial.
In a much smaller study at Montgomery Animal Hospital in 2017, vets reported promising evidence that Apoquel can help to treat dogs with outer ear infections caused by allergic skin disease.
How does a vet diagnose an allergy or skin condition
If your Lab has dermatitis, visiting the vet isn’t just a bureaucratic exercise. They will be vital to improving your Lab’s well being in two other ways.
First, they’ll investigate the underlying cause of the dermatitis. This might involve taking swabs to check for bacterial infection, using a special elimination diet to check for food allergies, and testing for parasites.
A great advantage of Apoquel is that it can be used concurrently with anti-parasitic drugs or topical ointments for bacterial and fungal skin infections. And it doesn’t interfere with allergy testing.
Secondly, your vet will monitor your dog while he’s taking Apoquel for any sign that he’s not responding well to it. This should include taking blood samples to check bone marrow function.
Apoquel for allergic dermatitis in dogs
Allergic dermatitis is inflammation and itchiness of the skin caused by hives or hypersensitivity to any of the following:
- something touching their skin
- flea, tick, mosquito or other insect bites
- ear mites
- intestinal parasites
- or bacterial infections.
An allergy is an extreme overreaction by our immune system to an everyday substance (the allergen).
How does Apoquel for dogs work
When a dog suffers from allergies which cause dermatitis, there are two parts to treating them:
- identifying the allergen so they can be protected from it in future, and
- relieving the discomfort of their symptoms in the mean time.
Vets use Apoquel for the second part – relieving the discomfort of itching.
Thanks to its active ingredients, Apoquel does this by manipulating the enzyme which causes inflammation and itching. This should make the symptoms of your dog’s allergy much more tolerable.
Since scratching the area frequently makes dermatitis exponentially worse, suppressing the need to scratch gives the skin a chance to heal.
Apoquel dosage for dogs with allergic dermatitis
You lab’s weight will determine the starting dose of Apoquel.
The data sheet provided by Zoetis gives the following doses: If your Labrador weighs…
- 45 – 59.9lb, a single dose is two 5.4mg tablets
- 60 – 89.9lb, a single dose is one 16mg tablet
For the complete dosing chart you can consult the data sheet.
Needless to say, every dog is different. Whilst the doses listed there may be the best place to start, your vet might recommend tweaking the dose for reasons specific to your dog.
So, if your vet advises a different dose to that data sheet, always follow their advice. They should be happy to discuss their reasoning with you!
How often should I give my dog Apoquel
Dogs precribed Apoquel start by taking two doses a day for the first fourteen days.
Apoquel usually begins to work within a couple of days. And the consensus among vets who have used it is that if it isn’t working within two weeks, then it isn’t going to work at all.
After the first two weeks, the treatment is reduced to one dose a day. This is described as “maintenance therapy”.
Apoquel for atopic dermatitis in dogs
Atopic dermatitis is hypersensitivity to something in the environment. This is something which is either inhaled or absorbed through the skin other than one of the things already listed above.
Sometimes the cause of atopic dermatitis is never identified.
Atopic dermatitis has a genetic component and is inheritable. Unfortunately Labradors are particularly predisposed to it
How does Apoquel for dogs work
Unfortunately, because this condition has a genetic and inheritable component, your dog is likely to suffer from it for his whole life.
Similar to its use in allergic dermatitis, Apoquel works by changing the action of the enzyme that causes itchiness and inflammation.
In so doing, it interrupts the signal pathway in our dogs’ cells which ultimately leads to inflammation and itching.
It manages that by blocking the activity of chemical signallers called janus kinases.
So, although this problem may persist in your dog for a long time, you can mitigate some of the long term damage by reducing your dog’s need to scratch the itch.
Apoquel dosage for dogs with atopic dermatitis
Similar to its use for allergic dermatitis, the dosage for your dog is based on his weight:
- 45 – 59.9lb, a single dose is two 5.4mg tablets
- 60 – 89.9lb, a single dose is one 16mg tablet
Again, you canconsult the data sheet provided by Zoetis.
How often should I give my dog Apoquel
Again, your vet will determine how often you dole out the Apoquel.
Your vet will likely start your dog out at two tablets a day for 2 weeks and then reduce it do 1 per day for a duration thereafter.
Other preparations of Apoquel for dogs
Side effects of dog Apoquel
In 2015, Zoetis published the long term experiences of these dogs. Some of whom had been using Apoquel for nearly two years by that point.
- Common Side Effects
- The most commonly described “adverse events” among those dogs were:
- urinary tract infections
- pyoderma (a bacterial skin infection)
- otitis (ear infections)
- weight gain
- vomiting and diarrhea
Less Common Side Effects
Less common adverse events included:
- cysts between the toes
- demodex mange
- blood abnormalities
What are Adverse Events
Wait, “adverse events”, does that still mean side effects?
When a drug is as new as Apoquel, it takes time and carefully controlled trials to work out whether the health problems dogs experience whilst taking the drug are because of it. Or whether they would have suffered them anyway.
So the term “adverse events” was used instead of side effects. This is because it was difficult to say whether their frequency in dogs taking Apoquel was significantly higher than in the ordinary dog population.
That is to say, they may have had the same problems whether they received Apoquel or not.
Causation vs Correlation
In a review of her experiences with Apoquel for Pet Dermatology Clinic website, vet Melissa Eisenschenk agrees that incidences of ear infections, weight gain and urinary tract infections are higher in dogs on Apoquel.
But, she notes that dogs with allergies tend to be more prone to urinary tract infections anyway. And the weight gain was less than usually seen with other anti-itching drugs).
Eisenschenk also reported bone marrow suppression in 1% of dogs taking Apoquel and recommended monitoring to identify these patients.
Veterinary feedback on Apoquel
In her review, Eisenschenk’s experience of prescribing Apoquel to over 1000 dogs was overall a positive one.
Which is mirrored by vet Nicole Heinrich’s description of giving Apoquel to 250 dogs on the VetGirl blog. Heinrich concludes that it is a promising replacement to steroids. But also stresses the importance of monitoring patients for the emergence of blood abnormalities.
One point on which there seems to be a lot of veterinary consensus. Apoquel is most suited to being used alongside carefully planned immunotherapy to isolate the cause of the itching and build up an appropriate immune response instead of an allergic one.
If you have the time and inclination, you can read even more feedback from vets at a workshop on the pros and cons of Apoquel therapy (including side effects) in 2017.
Dog owner’s feedback on Apoquel
We all compare notes with our friends when it comes to trying something new. It’s human nature.
That can be tricky when something is so new it might not be on your friends’ radar yet either.
If you’d like, you can also read a compilation of dog owners’ experiences of Apoquel collected by vet Ron Hines on his website.
Remember that all cases are unique. So your Lab’s experience will not be the same as another’s just because they are the same breed, age, or have the same allergy.
Detractors of Apoquel for dogs
Not everyone has been convinced by Apoquel. And since everything is online these days, there’s no point pretending the skeptics aren’t there.
Many ‘holistic’ vets, pretty much by definition, do not believe that Apoquel has a role in treating dermatitis.
Deva Khalsa and Will Falconer are among those who have written extensively against Apoquel.
Their main concerns are that suppressing any naturally occurring part of the body’s immune response is inherently wrong. They believe that Apoquel also suppresses other important janus kinase functions (which include maintaining healthy bone marrow and intestines).
Is Apoquel safe for dogs
Apoquel is NOT safe or suitable for your Labrador if:
- they’re less than a year old
- they have a serious infections
- they’re being used for breeding, are pregnant or nursing puppies
In safety studies before Apoquel was released onto the market, puppies under one year old experienced an increased rate of bacterial pneumonia and demodex mange.
Your vet might also advise against using Apoquel if you Labrador has certain infections. Since it works by suppressing part of the immune system.
Your vet might also advise against using Apoquel if your dog has had any kind of tumor in the past.
Is Apoquel bad for dogs
Like most kinds of medicine, Apoquel comes with its own list of side-effects. Your vet will not prescribe Apoquel unless she thinks it’s going to help.
If you notice any adverse side effects, don’t hesitate to contact your vet. Always stick to the recommended dose. This will usually reduce the likelihood that your dog will have a bad reaction.
How long can dogs take Apoquel for
Vets may prescribe Apoquel for short term for dermatological flare ups.
Alternatively, they may prescribe it for the long term alongside other medications. This would be in cases of atopic dermatitis or other conditions.
Apoquel is non-steroidal so shouldn’t require any tapering off.
Contraindications for dog Apoquel
According to the manufacturer Zoetis, you should not give Apoquel to breeding, pregnant or lactating dogs.
Nor should you give a dog Apoquel if he is under 12 months of age or if he has a serious infection.
When Apoquel for dogs doesn’t work
Remember, Apoquel does not by itself cure allergies or dermatitis.
Vets usually prescribe Apoquel to:
- treat the discomfort of itching while the cause of allergic dermatitis is identified and eliminated
- protect a dogs skin during summer if they get seasonal allergies
- or treat chronic atopic dermatitis over the long term if the cause is never identified.
If Apoquel isn’t working for your dog, you should contact your vet first. They may be able to prescribe a steroid alternative.
Apoquel for dogs cost
Finally, we come to the price of Apoquel of dogs.
In the US, Apoquel costs around $2.50 a tablet. That’s pretty competitive with other anti-itching therapies.
Your Lab might be unlucky enough to suffer allergic or atopic dermatitis. In that case it’s likely to take several consultations with your vet. She may do a small battery of tests to find out why.
And there’s a chance that the treatment could be lifelong.
You should check whether your pet insurance covers these costs.
Should I give my dog Apoquel?
Always consult your vet if your dog has skin problems or is scratching.
Helping dogs with dermatitis is often a lengthy process of trial and error to find and eliminate the cause(s).
Anti-itching drugs can give your dog relief from the misery of dermatitis while that process takes place.
If your Lab has reacted badly to corticosteroids or other anti-itching drugs in the past, Apoquel might be the alternative they need.
Apoquel for Dogs
Like virtually all effective drugs, Apoquel is not without side effects. And because it’s so new to the market there may be long term side effects which we don’t fully understand yet.
Like all medications, choosing to use Apoquel is a matter of weighing up your dog’s quality of life in the short term and the long term. And trying to make the best choice for your own pet.
Don’t forget, Apoquel is a prescription only drug. You should only give it to your dog on the advice of a qualified veterinarian. Remember to pay strict attention to their instructions.
Apoquel and your dog
Has a vet prescribed Apoquel for your dog? Did they find it helpful? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
We have extensively revised this article in 2019.
References and Further Reading
- Zoetis United States ‘Apoquel’ Accessed, 2019
- Cosgrove, S. B., Cleaver, D. M., King, V. L., Gilmer, A. R., Daniels, A. E., Wren, J. A. and Stegemann, M. R. (2015), Long‐term compassionate use of oclacitinib in dogs with atopic and allergic skin disease: safety, efficacy and quality of life. Vet Dermatol, 26: 171-e35.
- Apoquel Product Information
- Dr. Melissa Eisenschenk, DVM, DACVD, My clinical experience with Apoquel (oclacitinib), Pet Dermatology Clinic, 2019
- Ron Hines DVM PhD, Feedback from Apoquel Users, 2nd Chance, 2019
- Rosenkrantz, W. and Bourgeois, A. (2017). Pros and cons of oclacitinib therapy. In Advances in Veterinary Dermatology (eds S. M. Torres and P. Roudebush).
- VETGirl, Apoquel: Should I use it in my allergic pruritic dogs? | VetGirl Veterinary CE Blog, Accessed 2019
- Cosgrove, S. B., Cleaver, D. M., King, V. L., Gilmer, A. R., Daniels, A. E., Wren, J. A. and Stegemann, M. R. (2015), Long‐term compassionate use of oclacitinib in dogs with atopic and allergic skin disease: safety, efficacy and quality of life. Vet Dermatol, 26: 171-e35
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website