If you or your family members experience seasonal allergies, you may experience sneezing, a runny nose, or itchy eyes as pollen counts ramp up. Pets can also suffer from allergies, which may be the result of environmental allergens, flea bites, or food. While humans are more likely to experience hay fever during allergy season, pets manifest allergies with itchy skin, chronic infections, and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea. Allergies can be difficult to identify and manage, but your Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic team is here to help.
What are pet allergies?
Allergies in pets, which are caused by an overactive immune system, are extremely common. Allergens are normal, everyday substances like pollen or food proteins that your pet encounters regularly, but the body overreacts and treats them as foreign invaders, causing inflammation in an effort to destroy them. This inflammation most often affects the skin, ears, and anal glands, causing:
- Itching — Itchiness may manifest as scratching, chewing, incessant licking, or rust-colored staining on light fur.
- Skin infections — Inflammation leaves the skin vulnerable to normal flora, causing invasion of local bacteria and/or fungi.
- Ear infections — Bacteria and yeast love the moist environment inside an inflamed ear. Chronic ear infections are one of the most common allergy signs in pets.
- Eye inflammation — Allergies may sometimes cause conjunctivitis, leading to eye discharge and eye rubbing.
Allergy treatment focuses on breaking the itch-scratch cycle, restoring comfort, and finding the root cause of the problem. Pet allergies can be broken down into three main types—flea, food, and environment—that all have similar signs, but require different treatment strategies. Many pets suffer with a combination of these allergy types, and are prone to developing new allergies, so some trial and error will be required to uncover the best treatment for each individual.
Pet flea allergies
For pets with flea allergies, only a few bites can induce a severe allergic response that includes intense itching and hair loss in a characteristic pattern at the tail base, so pets with flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) may or may not have a flea infestation. Treatment requires eliminating all fleas, whether few or many, from your pet using an appropriate monthly product, as well as strict environmental control. Medications can help reduce the itching and inflammation until the fleas are controlled.
Pet food allergies
Contrary to popular belief, food allergies are not common in pets. Most often, pets are affected by environmental allergens, with the most common culprits being proteins such as chicken, dairy, beef, and fish, and sometimes carbohydrate sources. Gluten doesn’t cause allergies in pets, except in certain Irish setter lines. Food allergies can affect the pet’s skin and ears, or cause gastrointestinal inflammation with vomiting or diarrhea.
No laboratory tests can reliably distinguish food allergies from other types, so suspect pets must undergo a diet trial for 8 to 12 weeks, during which they eat a veterinary or home-prepared diet using a hydrolyzed or novel protein. If the diet trial causes improvement, the pet is re-challenged with the original diet or individual ingredients to prove that signs return when the offending food is re-introduced. Long-term food allergy management includes allergen avoidance, and medications can help manage flare-ups.
Pet environmental allergies
Most allergic pets suffer from environmental allergies triggered by pollens, grasses, dust and storage mites, and molds. Some pets are allergic to saliva or dander from other animals or humans, like humans can be allergic to dogs or cats. Environmental allergies can be worse seasonally, or persist year-round, depending on the problem allergens. Treatment varies depending on severity, and may include:
- Antihistamines — These over-the-counter medications (e.g., Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec) help in about 30% of mild allergy cases.
- Steroids — Steroids are heavy-hitting medications that quickly reduce inflammation and the immune response. Long-term use can be harmful, however, so steroids are often used as a “rescue” short-term treatment to control severe or sudden signs.
- Immunomodulators — Medications such as Apoquel, Cytopoint, and Atopica work in various ways to suppress the immune system and subsequently reduce inflammation and itching. These medications are safer than steroids for long-term use.
- Immunotherapy — A blood or skin test can determine which environmental allergens are affecting a particular pet, and immunotherapy can desensitize them to their allergens over time. Immunotherapy, which can be administered as an injection or a liquid under the tongue, is effective in 60% to 70% of pets.
- Topical medications — Anti-itch and anti-microbial creams and sprays may be helpful for some pets.
- Bathing — Bathing is a keystone therapy for allergic pets, but your pet must be washed several times a week to ensure improvement. Bathing removes allergens from the pet’s coat, and medicated, antimicrobial shampoos can reduce the occurrence of skin infections and itching.
In severe cases, we may refer your pet to a veterinary dermatologist for specialized allergy care.
Allergies can make your pet miserable, but your Haskell Valley Veterinary Clinic team can help you find and treat the source of your pet’s discomfort. Call us to schedule an appointment if your pet is experiencing skin or ear problems, or you believe they may be suffering from a flea, food, or environmental allergy.