It’s that time of year again… allergy season. For millions that means itchy red eyes and runny nose and general discomfort.
Many of us get seasonal allergies, but did you know your pets can too? Do you know how to combat allergies in your pet? Here are some tips on how to prevent those dreadful itching, licking, chewing responses in your pet and make them feel their best!
What are pet allergies?
Itching, most frequently a result of allergies, is the most common cause of veterinary visits in the world. There are four common types of allergies in pets: fleas, food sensitivity, contact, and airborne (atopy). These allergies all lead to a increased (often excessive) release of histamine, an immune oriented chemical compound in the body that helps regulate inflammatory response, as an enhanced reaction in the pet’s body to fight the “invader” or in this case the allergen. Many veterinarians believe that allergies can result from genetic or inherited factors in which excessive histamine release causes redness, swelling, pain, and itch. The pet then often licks, chews, or scratches at the irritated body parts (often face, feet, ears, or tail/anal region) resulting in skin irritation, scabbing, hair loss, dandruff, hot spots, or hives. If allergies are not treated those symptoms can lead to secondary yeast or bacterial infections of the skin or ears, lesions or plaques, upper respiratory infections or even in some cases ulcers.
Common Symptoms of Allergies:
- Excessive scratching, chewing, or biting, particularly around the head, feet, or tail
- Excessive licking, particularly the paws or anus region
- Inflamed or infected skin (most commonly around face and ears) or hives
- Excessive shedding, hair loss, or dandruff
- Consistent head shaking, red or very way ears, or kicking at ears, may indicate chronic ear infections
- Respiratory issues
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Watery or itchy eyes
- Scooting (can also indicate anal gland issues so ask your vet about that too)
1. Flea Allergies:
A flea allergy is caused by your pet’s reaction to a flea’s bite and saliva. Even one flea bite can cause an intense reaction for a sensitive pet. Often flea allergies result in constant scratching leading to hair loss and scabbing. For dogs, the main areas affected are often in the groin, along the tail and hind legs, and down the rump. Cats do not have a typical affected area and can show scabs anywhere on the body. Flea combs are often used to detect flea dirt on your pet’s skin. If your pet has been infested with fleas it is important to treat your home as well as all of your pets with flea treatment. Fleas can easily be transferred between pets so make sure that you have medicated all of your animals even if they do not show signs of a flea infestation so they do not continue be a vector for transmission. For home treatment 1800petmeds.com recommends Wondercide or Cedarcide as natural alternatives to the traditional chemicals for flea removal. Medications for fleas in pets include flea collars, topical applications, and chewable pills for your pet. Many pet owners keep their pets on year round flea and tick protection. Talk to your veterinarian to find out what will work best for you and your pet.
2. Food Sensitivities:
Food intolerances, more often called food sensitivities, result from a reaction to a protein, carbohydrate, additive, or preservative in your pet’s food. Your pet’s body believes that the ingredient is an invader rather than a necessary nutrient and initiates an allergic response. According to the American Kennel Club, true food allergies are rare and are associated with severe reactions including facial swelling, gastrointestinal distress, and anaphylaxis. Most dogs do not have a true food allergy, but may have a food sensitivity. With insensitivities you will likely see symptoms that include general itchiness leading to hair loss, skin irritation, or sores, but most particularly around the ears and paws. Your pet’s coat will likely become dull or greasy. You may also see chronic ear infections or digestive tract issues including diarrhea or vomiting. Typically cats show those symptoms more often than the others and may only have vomiting of food or hair. If your cat vomits frequently that is a sign of allergy or other illness and they should be taken to your veterinarian.
Food allergies can sometimes be diagnosed with a blood or skin allergy test after other possible causes of the pet’s symptoms (parasites, viruses, or the ingestion of a non-food item) are ruled out. Most often veterinarians will recommend a 6-12 week food trial in which various proteins and ingredients are removed from the diet to obtain a proper diagnosis. Cummings Veterinary Medical Center has more information about the success of food trials and food sensitivities in general. As a result many pets are switched to a novel and restricted protein diet, often venison, rabbit, or duck, and sometimes are placed on a grain-free diet to relieve symptoms and inflammation. Wellness, Wysong, Now, and Nature’s Variety are non-prescription foods that are often recommended for pets with food sensitivities. Make a plan with your veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist to determine what is right for your pet.
3. Contact Dermatitis:
Contact allergies, also referred to as contact dermatitis or allergic dermatitis, are caused by an interaction with a substance in your pet’s environment. Often materials such as grass, weeds, flowers, mulch, or even carpet fibers are the allergens affecting your pet, but topical shampoos, dips, or pesticides can cause allergic reactions for pets with sensitive skin as well. Veterinarians will frequently use exposure histories to determine a diagnosis and will suggest reducing your pet’s interaction with such substances. Symptoms can be relieved with topical or oral anti-inflammatory or antihistamine medications. Always speak with your veterinarian prior to medicating your pet.
4. Inhalant Allergies:
Atopic, or inhalant airborne, allergies are most commonly caused by molds, dust mites or dander, and ragweed or other plant pollens. Typically these allergies cause itching around the head and feet for dogs and the head and thighs for cats but either pet can show signs throughout the body. Pets with airborne allergies often have flareups during season changes or during certain seasons just like humans. Veterinarians use blood and skin allergy tests to diagnose atopic allergies and recommend removal of the offending substance as well as symptomatic anti-itch medications to combat these allergies. Some vets will recommend periodic shampoo therapy to remove any allergens from your pet’s coat, stronger anti-allergy medications or steroids, or allergy desensitization shots. Holistic alternatives include the Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Technique.
Acute Allergic Reactions:
This is not a “type” of allergy. Acute reactions can happen with any of the above types of allergies but most commonly are caused by bee stings and somewhat less commonly by vaccinations. An acute allergic reaction can result in hives or facial swelling, including swelling of the eyelids, ears, lips, or throat. This may look scary but is rarely fatal and can be treated by your veterinarian with antihistamines. Anaphylaxis can occur in acute allergic reactions, but is rare. This is why veterinarians recommend that you watch your pet closely following the administration of a new vaccine, drug, or food.
For pets with mild symptoms of their allergies there may be supplements or natural treatments that you can attempt. Holistic veterinarians recommend tea tree oil and occasionally diluted yucca to relieve itching and moisturize the skin and coat.
For pets with dry or irritated skin as a result of allergies, bathing with a hypoallergenic or oatmeal based shampoo could help relieve some symptoms. Be sure to rinse well because shampoo left on the coat or skin can exacerbate their skin issues. Tell your veterinarian or groomer if you are bathing with these types of shampoos and how frequently you are utilizing them to provide a complete picture when dealing with allergies. Baking soda can also help relieve itchy and irritated skin. Create a paste by mixing 1 tablespoon of baking soda with a little bit of water and place it on the itchy or red areas on your pet. Leave the paste on for at least an hour to give it time to calm the irritated skin and then gently wash it off. You can also use aloe on irritated and red skin to relieve itch and redness, but make sure to use pure aloe (not the tub you buy from the grocery store with preservatives and additives) and watch your pet to make sure they do not lick it off.
DogsNaturally.com recommends trying bovine colostrum or mushrooms to reduce allergic symptoms. There is little evidence to support these recommendations currently, but the scientific community is always evolving and these may become commonplace treatments in the future. The website also suggests feeding your pets quercetin, which is a natural anti-inflammatory and antihistamine and is found in apples and broccoli, as a concentrated powder.
Dr. Judy Morgan, a leader in holistic medicine and food therapy, recommends witch hazel which has soothing and drying effects, applying cool green or black tea bags to your pet’s skin to help, or using coconut oil to combat the secondary infections resulting from excessive licking/scratching/chewing. Denyse Lessard, an alternative medicine therapist, also has some good information about home remedies that could be beneficial to your pets.
The majority of evidence to support home remedies is anecdotal. There are many natural remedies to help relieve itchiness and the symptoms of allergies. Make sure you do your research and purchase any of the remedies from reputable businesses. When in doubt always ask your veterinarian.
According to the AKC “the best way to treat an allergy is avoidance of the cause and allergen” which may or may not always be possible. Treatment depends on the type of allergy your pet has. For example, if your pet has a flea allergy then the best treatment would be to kill the fleas, but if your pet has a food sensitivity then you should change your pet’s diet. In addition to attempting to remove (or remove your pet from) the allergen, your veterinarian may also recommend medication to help control the symptoms and prevent secondary reactions or infections.
Treatment with anti-inflammatory medications such as corticosteroids (like Prednisone or Kenalog), along with antihistamines (common antihistamines prescribed include Reactin, Benadryl, Zyrtec, Hydroxyzine HCL and Cyproheptadine), can quickly block symptoms of sudden flareups. The VCA (formerly Veterinary Centers of America) suggests that veterinarians recommend a fatty acid supplementation to the pet’s diet to help the steroids and antihistamines work more effectively. Veterinarians may also prescribe oral cyclosporine (brand name Atopica), which has fewer long term side effects than corticosteroids, or a JAK inhibitor like Apoquel for treating allergies. Topical sprays including tea tree oil for contact dermatitis are not as common but can reduce inflammation and itching to help skin lesions or sores heal.
Veterinarians may also recommend medicated or hypo-allergenic shampoo to remove any allergens from the pet’s skin and coat. Some of those shampoos also contain anti-inflammatory ingredients to help soothe symptoms.
For allergies that can be pinpointed to a specific origin with allergy testing, veterinarians can prescribe desensitization therapy. In this treatment, a very small amount of the allergen is injected into the pet weekly to reprogram or desensitize the immune system. This treatment is not always successful and can only be used if the specific antigen can be determined.
If you are concerned that your pet has allergies contact your veterinarian. Most likely your pet will need to have a full examination to rule out other causes of the symptoms. Speak to your veterinarian before giving your pet any medication for allergies. If a medication is recommended, ask questions about how it works and what potential short and long term side effects could occur. As with all medications, if an allergy medication is prescribed by your veterinarian be sure to follow the veterinarian’s dosage and administration instructions. Remember that most allergies cannot be “cured” but can be controlled and their symptoms can be lessened or eliminated through lifelong management.