Allergies in Dogs and Cats
Dealing with an allergic dog or cat can be an extremely frustrating experience, and can truly test the limits of the human-animal bond. Constant and chronic scratching and chewing by the pet can also result in severe skin damage and infections.
What are Allergies?
An allergy is a state of hypersensitivity in which exposure to a harmless substance known as an allergen induces the body’s immune system to “overreact.” People with allergies usually have “hay fever” (watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing) or asthma. While dogs and cats can less likely have respiratory allergies, more commonly they experience the effects of allergic hypersensitivities as skin and ear problems. Though there are a variety of presentations, this can often be seen as redness and itching, recurring skin or ear infections, and hair loss.
What are the Major Types of Allergies in Dogs and Cats?
Flea allergic dermatitis is the most common skin disease in dogs and cats, and it can be seen at any age. For the flea allergic patient, 100% flea control is essential for the pet to remain symptom-free. You may not see fleas, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The allergy is caused by the flea’s saliva, and it only takes a few bites to cause the problem. Also, the itchy pet often scratches, bites and licks so much that adult fleas are removed, making them very difficult to find. In warm climates or in our homes, fleas may survive in low numbers year-round. Because flea allergy is so common, it is recommended that complete flea control be instituted before proceeding with diagnostics for other allergies and that year-round flea control be maintained for all allergy patients. This control involves all pets and their environment.
Pets develop atopic dermatitis (atopy) from exposure and hypersensitivity to a variety of commonplace and otherwise harmless substances including the pollens of weeds, grasses and trees, as well as house dust mites and mold spores. Most pets become itchy or red in some form and develop signs between 6 months and 3 years of age. Atopy can be controlled with steroids, antihistamines, fish oils (Omega-3s), shampoos, creme rinses, sprays, special topical oils, Atopica, Apoquel (dogs), Cytopoint (injectable immunotherapy for dogs) and allergy extract injections or drops after allergy testing. More medications to help in the battle against atopy are being developed. Allergy testing can be performed by intradermal skin testing at a dermatologist or by blood testing at the hospital. Evaluating the results of these tests allows us to compile a list of allergens for a “vaccine” to decrease the pet’s sensitivity. Sometimes multiple skin and/or blood tests are necessary to accurately assess the patient’s allergies. There is no “silver bullet,” and each therapy must be tailored to the specific patient. Focused, consistent and safe atopy care demands patience, thorough knowledge and commitment. We are more than willing to help form those necessary traits to make atopy care a success for your pet.
These allergies can be seen at any age. Some pets develop specific hypersensitivities to components of their diets. The allergen usually is a protein or carbohydrate ingredient such as beef, dairy, chicken, pork, fish, corn, wheat, or soy. Minor ingredients such as preservatives or dyes are also potential allergens. Most pets will develop a food allergy to a specific allergen or allergens after being on the same food for an extended time. Changes in diet usually do not correlate with developing food allergies. The diagnosis of food allergy requires that we test your pet by feeding special strict diets that contain only ingredients that he or she has never eaten before or a special diet that has made the potential offending food allergen small enough for the body’s immune system to not detect it. This is best achieved by strictly feeding only a prescription diet for a period of 8-12 weeks. If the signs resolve, a challenge can be performed by feeding the former diet and watching for a return of the itching. If this occurs, a diagnosis of food allergy can be made.
**Keep in mind that many dogs and cats can have BOTH atopy and food allergies. Also, the goal of successful allergy control is to keep the allergy exposure below the “allergy threshold” of the pet. This is very important to understand, and we can discuss this with you if needed.**
Allergies are often the underlying cause of recurring skin and/or ear infections. Bacterial and yeast infections, though secondary to the allergy, can cause an increase in your pet’s itching. Long-term treatment with antibiotics and anti-yeast medications is commonly required, along with medicated bathing programs.
Can Allergies be Cured?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for allergy and it is usually a life-long problem. We want to control allergies and improve the quality of life for both you and your pet. We will formulate the best program of management that suits your pet’s care.
Can I have the Itching Treated without the Expense of Diagnostic Testing?
Symptomatic drug therapy can help to reduce itching. Steroids, such as prednisone, are often used to stop the itch. However, without addressing the underlying cause, the itching will return. Long-term use of steroids, though inexpensive and clinically effective in breaking the itch cycle, can result in many health problems. This is the reason that we encourage diagnosis of the underlying cause of the allergy and more specific or less potentially harmful treatments.