With the arrival of the warmer weather and the pollen count steadily rising, many of us have begun to feel allergy symptoms again. The same goes for our pets. Dogs and cats, however, develop very different symptoms than people do. Unlike people, pets with allergies develop skin symptoms, especially itching, although the allergy may also affect the respiratory or digestive system.
Allergy symptoms vary widely. Mild symptoms often include general redness of the skin and some occasional foot licking and ear shaking. More severe signs are pronounced itching and scratching, even to the point where the pet starts to lose hair and have sores. Some pets are only itchy in certain areas, like the ears, face, feet, or lower back. The problem is that allergy symptoms tend to get more severe over time.
There are different types of allergies in pets. Most common are those to fleas, inhalants (pollen, molds, etc), and food allergy. Inhalant allergy is also called atopy and can include seasonal outdoor allergy or mixed indoor-outdoor allergy that tends to be a problem year-round. Food allergy is the least common and is often confused with food sensitivities.
Diagnosis of allergies is not easy. It is based on the presence of symptoms, whether signs are seasonal or year-round, and ruling out other causes of itchiness such as skin infections or parasites. Flea allergies include exposure to fleas and result in hair loss near the tail base, whereas inhalant and food allergies often affect the ears and feet. Some pets can have a combination of different allergies which can cause them to have varying symptoms throughout the year.
Another complicating factor is the fact that the skin inflammation often leads to secondary bacterial or yeast infection, which can cause additional symptoms such as greasy, smelly skin, pimples and sores. These skin infections then require different medications to treat them. Food allergies are generally diagnosed with a strict 3-month food trial.
In order to determine the exact cause of your pet’s itching, allergy tests are often required. Allergy tests provide a specific diagnosis in approximately 80% of cases. The drawback is that they are fairly expensive and do not yield quick results.
Anti-inflammatory drugs will often bring relief from the itching caused by allergies. Even though antihistamines work well in people, they have only limited benefits in pets with allergies as they work primarily against symptoms of hay fever, which is not how pets show allergy symptoms. In the past, the primary medication for allergy symptoms was cortisone. Fortunately, we now have better choices available!
The newest medication on the market is Apoquel™, manufactured by the company Zoetis. Another option is Atopica™, also an oral medication. Both of these are excellent choices without cortisone-related side effects. Your veterinarian can help you determine which may be best for your pet.
Omega 3 fatty acids also provide some relief for pets with allergic skin disease. Antibiotics or antifungal medications may be required if there is secondary skin infection. However, just as in people, all of these products treat only the clinical signs, not the underlying allergy, which means that symptoms often come back once treatment is stopped.
The only treatment available that does help to lessen or partially cure allergies is allergy testing with subsequent desensitization injections, or “allergy shots”. This is not a quick fix option as it takes about a year to see maximum benefit. Again, just as in people, this generally does not completely eliminate the problem but does lessen the disease.
An effective, year-round flea control should be used in all pets with allergies. Certain breeds may also benefit from hormone testing. Low thyroid production, or hypothyroidism, affects the skin and may exacerbate allergies.
If you suspect that your pet may have allergies, contact your veterinary team. They are prepared to help you find the cause and optimize what you can do to help your pet be comfortable this allergy season. We realize that this is one of the most frustrating and difficult health problems to manage in our pets, and we are here to help you make it as successful as possible!