Canine atopic dermatitis (CAD) is a multifaceted disease associated with exposure to various offending agents such as environmental and food allergens. The diagnosis of this condition is difficult because none of the typical signs are pathognomonic. Sets of criteria have been proposed but are mainly used to include dogs in clinical studies. The goals of the present study were to characterize the clinical features and signs of a large population of dogs with CAD, to identify which of these characteristics could be different in food-induced atopic dermatitis (FIAD) and non-food-induced atopic dermatitis (NFIAD) and to develop criteria for the diagnosis of this condition. Using simulated annealing, selected criteria were tested on a large and geographically widespread population of pruritic dogs. The study first described the signalment, history and clinical features of a large population of CAD dogs, compared FIAD and NFIAD dogs and confirmed that both conditions are clinically indistinguishable. Correlations of numerous clinical features with the diagnosis of CAD are subsequently calculated, and two sets of criteria associated with sensitivity and specificity ranging from 80% to 85% and from 79% to 85%, respectively, are proposed. It is finally demonstrated that these new sets of criteria provide better sensitivity and specificity, when compared to Willemse and Prélaud criteria. These criteria can be applied to both FIAD and NFIAD dogs.