Although we’re all beyond ecstatic that the weather is finally getting warmer, a pesky side effect of Spring is that it’s allergy season, too! Are you or your pet feeling itchy and scratchy? One of the most common reasons for your pet to come into the vet clinic is because of allergies. Unfortunately, it can be a very frustrating situation for pet owners to be in. The purpose of this blog post is to open your eyes to the many different facets of pet allergies
What is an allergy?
It is a lifelong, incurable condition where the body reacts to an allergen in a negative way. Allergies are frequently known to cause secondary issues, such as skin and ear infections.
What causes allergies?
An allergy can form if your dog or cat has been exposed to a specific allergen at least twice. This sounds kind of confusing, I know, so let me try to explain this a bit better! Say your dog develops an allergy to dust. The first time he is exposed to it, his immune system will produce antibodies. Each exposure that occurs after this will cause a reaction to occur between the dust and the antibody. This reaction will release a large abundance of white blood cells and a chemical called histamine, which causes all of the symptoms we see in our pets a “allergic reactions”. As they try to get rid of these allergens, skin, digestive, and respiratory issues can appear. In essence, their immune system is registering the allergen as being a dangerous substance that it must get rid of. For example, you will likely see itching or swollen skin. Just like with humans, heredity can play a large part in your pet developing allergies. It has been statistically proven that some breeds are more likely than others to develop allergies, as well.
Canine breeds that are more likely to get allergies are:
- Mastiff breeds (Bulldogs, Boxers, Pit Bulls)
- Shih Tzus and Lhasa Apsos
- Bichon Frise
- Retrievers (Labradors, Goldens, Chesapeake Bay, Shar Pei, Spaniels, Springers, Brittanies, Labradoodles, and Goldendoodles)
- Terriers (Especially Wheatons, Yorkshire, and Jack Russells)
- German Shepherds
These breeds are so allergic to grasses, dust mites, molds, pollens, etc (allergy syndrome called “atopy”) that they actually have less than a 50% chance of allergy desensitization shots working. Other dog breeds have a 75% allergy cure or control rate with monthly allergy shots. You know your Shih Tzu or Lhasa has allergies if they lick their paws, or the paws are stained a reddish brown from stealth licking they sneak when you are not looking (like when you are sleeping.)
- Mold spores
- Cigarette smoke
- Food: beef, chicken, corn, wheat
- Cleaning products
Signs & Symptoms:
- Skin: itchy, red, moist, scabbed
- Runny eyes
- Licking (especially their paws)
- Swollen, red skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Hair loss (from secondary yeast or bacterial skin infections)
What happens if you leave allergies without treatment?
If left untreated, your pet will likely get progressively more irritated and will continue to lick, itch and scratch every area that is bothering them. This can lead to additional sores that could lead to secondary infections.
Types of Allergies
The first step is to treating allergies is to isolate and determine the allergen which is causing the reactions. There are four main categories of allergens that it could fall under: fleas, environment, contact, and food. Fleas and environment are the most probable causes of allergies in your dogs and cats.
One of the most common types of allergies are caused by fleas. However, it isn’t the actual fleas that trigger the allergy. It is actually the proteins found in the saliva of fleas that cause the allergic reaction! Even a single bite from a flea can cause your pet to itch for 5 days. This is just another reason why it is so important to use a flea preventative. Flea allergies are the most common form of allergies seen in dogs. You may not think that you see fleas on your pet, but they are likely there.
These are the reactions that occur when your pets skin gets in physical contact with a specific allergic material. Common materials can include flea collars, household cleaners, fertilizers, and insecticides.
Food related allergies typically develop over time as your pets immune system develops. It is most commonly triggered by an animal protein, but also by carbohydrates, preservatives or dyes. If your pet has this type of allergy, they will likely need a specialized diet (see section below). The best way to determine if your pet has a food allergy is to do an elimination diet. This is when you would take away all potential allergens and introduce them one by one until they have another reaction. When the reaction occurs, you SHOULD know what the culprit allergen is. Unfortunately, you may need to try a few different diets before you find the plan that doesn’t cause an allergic reaction.
Environmental allergens are those that are inhaled, such as pollens and molds found outside (especially in spring and summer). Your pet will likely be seen itching their feet, ears, groin, and underarms. In dogs, environmental allergies can even lead to hair loss in spots around the body from persistent scratching and chewing.
Canine Atopic Dermatitis (airborne allergies)
This is a genetic inflammatory skin disorder where your dog will become sensitive environmental allergens like pollen and mold. It can be season or all year round, depending on the allergen they are sensitive to and can occur within 1-3 years of exposure. An easy way to think about atopy is that your pet inhales an allergen, but instead of sneezing, they get itchy skin. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple and it isn’t even fully understood yet. The main thing to keep in mind is that these allergens come from the air and will only affect someone who is genetically programmed to be bothered by the allergen. Seasonal itchiness from atopy typically begins between the ages of 1 and 3 years. Food allergies, on the other hand, become apparent closer to 5-6 years of age.
These types of infections involve bacteria and/or yeast at sites on the body where your pet is commonly itchy. Since these microorganisms live on the skin naturally, when your pet scratches, they are irritating the skin and allowing the organisms to gain access to the inner tissue layers and reproduce. Secondary infections are typically recurrent issues.
Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to treat allergies unless we know exactly what is causing the reactions in your pet. Various things can be done to try to treat allergies. These range from immunotherapy to antihistamines to steroids to eliminating diets.
Treating allergies can vary drastically from pet to pet, so it is ESSENTIAL that you speak to your veterinarian as soon as you begin to see signs of allergies in your pets. There are many diseases and health issues that show similar symptoms as allergies, so it is important not to self-diagnose your pets!! Nonprescription treatments can be used to treat some allergies. This includes antihistamines, which have been known to alleviate 20% of allergies in pets. These are far less harmful than steroids, but will not work nearly as well.
Cats are SIGNIFICANTLY more responsive to antihistamines, but they must be medicated twice daily. However, make sure you talk to your vet before giving your pet any medication for proper dosing instructions. Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids can be given, but can take over a month before any sort of improvement is seen. They work by disrupting the production of inflammatory chemicals that are found in the skin. What’s great about these, is that they may postpone the need to use steroids. The not so great thing about them is that they can take a while before any improvement is seen. Another thing to keep in mind is that antihistamines and fatty acids work synergistically together. This means that they help each other out when used at the same time and end up working even better when compared to being used alone. Frequent baths using prescription shampoos can definitely help relieve itchiness. Make sure you let the shampoo sit for 3-5 minutes. Topical sprays and creams can also be given and typically contain either an antihistamine or steroid. However, make sure you speak to your vet about what should be given.
Prescription treatments are typically more effective at treating allergies. Steroids can be used to relieve signs of allergies, but they can have some negative long-term side-effects. However, they are typically the first line of defense for allergies. A dog with atopy will typically respond within a couple of days. Side effects of steroids include excessive thirst, hunger, and urination and potential suppression of the immune system. Cyclosporin typically relieves symptoms in nearly 75% pf pets. This is because it works by targeting the CAUSE of the disease; however, it should only be used for the stubborn pets that don’t respond to other treatments. In essence, this product modulates the immune response. A new “miracle” product, Oclacitinib, begins alleviating symptoms within 4 hours of dosing and lasts for 24 hours. As mentioned in other sections of this blog post, prescription diets can also be given to treat food allergies. Injections are other options that can be given to your pet, but it can take anywhere from 6 to 12 months before any results are observed. A safer route than injections is sublingual therapy. It has the same end result, but is overall safer for your pet.
Itching to know more about allergies?
Check out these helping links that I used to write this blog: