By our Head Vet Helen
As summer approaches, we are seeing more and more itchy animals at the clinics, so I thought I’d write a brief article about allergies in pets, what the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment options are.
Just like people, our dogs and cats can show allergic symptoms when their immune systems begin to recognize certain everyday substances, or allergens, as dangerous. Allergens can be problematic when inhaled, ingested or in contact a pet’s skin. As the body tries to rid itself of these substances, a variety of skin, digestive and respiratory symptoms may appear.
What Are the General Symptoms of Allergies?
- Itchy, red, moist or scabbed skin
- Increased scratching
- Itchy, runny eyes
- Itchy back or base of tail (most commonly flea allergy)
- Itchy ears and ear infections
- Paw chewing/swollen paws
- Constant licking
Allergic dogs may also suffer from secondary bacterial or yeast skin infections, which may cause hair loss, scabs or crusts on the skin.
Common Substances Which Pets Can Be Allergic To
A few common allergens include:
- Tree, grass and weed pollens
- Mould spores
- Dust and house dust mites
- Cat dander and epithelium (for dogs)
- Cigarette smoke
- Food ingredients (e.g. beef, chicken, pork, corn, wheat or soy)
- Prescription drugs
- Fleas (The bite of a single flea can trigger intense itchiness for two to three weeks!)
- Cleaning products
- Insecticidal shampoo
- Rubber and plastic materials
Can Animals Be Allergic to Food?
Yes, but it often takes some detective work to find out what substance is causing the allergic reaction. Dogs with a food allergy will commonly have itchy skin or gastrointestinal problems like diarrhoea and vomiting, and a strict elimination diet will most probably be used to determine what food they are allergic to (see below). If your pet is specifically allergic to chicken, for example, you should avoid feeding him any products containing chicken protein or fat.
Please note that food allergies may show up in animals at any age.
What Should I Do If I Think My Pet Has Allergies?
Make an appointment to see one of our vets. After taking a complete history and conducting a physical examination, the vet may be able to determine the source of your dog’s allergic reaction. If not, your vet will most probably recommend skin or blood tests, or a special elimination diet, to find out what’s causing the allergic reaction.
The best way to diagnose a food allergy is to feed your dog a prescription or hydrolyzed protein diet such as Hills ZD diet, exclusively for 12 weeks. The importance of not feeding your dog anything but the diet cannot be emphasized enough-that means no treats, table food or flavoured medication. This diet will be free of potential allergy-causing ingredients and will ideally have ingredients your pet has never been exposed to. He’ll remain on the diet until his symptoms go away, at which time you’ll begin to reintroduce old foods to see which ones might be causing the allergic reaction.
How Can Allergies Be Treated?
The best way to treat allergies is to remove as many of the offending allergens from the environment as possible.
- Prevention is the best treatment for allergies caused by fleas. Start a flea control program for all of your pets and continue with regular application of a an effective product such as ADVOCATE. Remember, outdoor pets can carry fleas inside to indoor pets.
- If dust is the problem, clean your pet’s bedding once a week and vacuum at least twice weekly. This includes rugs, curtains and any other materials that gather dust. Look around your house and minimise any dust collecting areas such as piles of paperwork or magazines.
- Wetting the nose and muzzle before your dog eats any dry food will ensure that any dust mites in the food will stick to the dog’s skin rather than being inhaled. The dog will then lick them off and swallow them, which causes far less allergic issues than inhaling the dust mites.
- Weekly bathing may help relieve itching and remove environmental allergens and pollens from your dog’s skin. Discuss with our vets which prescription shampoos are best for your pet, as frequent bathing with the wrong product can dry out skin
- If you suspect your dog has a food allergy, she’ll need to be put on an exclusive prescription or hydrolyzed protein diet. Once the allergy is determined, our vets will recommend specific foods.
Are There Allergy Medications for Pets with Allergies?
Since certain substances cannot be removed from the environment, our vets may recommend medications to control the allergic reaction:
In the case of airborne allergens, your dog may benefit from allergy injections. These will help your pet develop resistance to the offending agent, instead of just masking the itch.
Antihistamines such as Piriton can be used, but may only benefit a small percentage of dogs with allergies – they are far less effective on animals than they are on people with allergies. Ask your vet first.
Fatty acid supplements might help relieve your pet’s itchy skin. There are also shampoos that may help prevent skin infection, which occurs commonly in dogs with allergies. Sprays containing oatmeal, aloe and other natural products are also available.
An immune modulating drug may also be helpful such as Atopica or Apoquel
Even if fleas aren’t the primary allergen, if your pet has allergies then getting an easily preventable flea infestation will make the whole situation a lot worse as they can be hypersensitive. Applying an effective flea-prevention product monthly to your pet’s skin to prevent fleas is key, such as ADVOCATE
If the problem is severe, the vet may prescribe steroids to control the allergy. However these drugs are strong and should be used with caution and only under the guidance of your vet. They are not suitable for every animal.
If you have any questions regarding allergies, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the clinic.