Did you realize that your pets can have allergies, too? BLVD Vet's Dr. Geisler helps break down what you should know about canine and feline allergies!
by Julie Geisler, DVM
What is an allergy?
An allergy is a hypersensitivity of the immune system to a substance called an allergen. Allergens can be from plants, insects, foods, or other things in a pet’s environment. The most common allergens we see in pets are to insects (think fleas), environment, like weeds or molds, and food. Allergies are one of the most common and complex diseases we see in veterinary medicine.
What are symptoms of an allergy?
The most common symptoms we see to allergies are itching of the skin (licking paws, skin infections) and ear infections. Some food allergies will present with vomiting and diarrhea. Only about 10-15% of allergic dogs have food allergies, but in dogs with a condition called atopic dermatitis, the wrong diet can cause flare ups. Allergic symptoms can start as early as 6 months of age, but most dogs will start showing signs around 1-2 years of age. As dogs age, allergies can worsen or become more mild depending on the dog.
Cat allergies don't seem to be as age dependent, so it's important to keep an eye out for changes throughout your pet's lifetime.
What is Atopic Dermatitis?
Also known as ‘atopy,’ atopic dermatitis is an allergy to inhalant allergens like weeds and pollen. These pets present their symptoms similarly to other allergies with itching and can range in the severity of clinical signs. Symptoms usually start within 6 months to 6 years of age. It is a severe, chronic, inflammatory skin condition where the actual protective barrier of the skin has been damaged making the pet more susceptible to allergens and therefore itchy.
How do we diagnose allergies?
Allergies are diagnosed by process of elimination. We usually will start with a skin scrape to rule out microscopic skin parasites and a fungal culture to rule out ringworm as these are easier diseases to treat. We will also recommend monthly flea and tick prevention for all pets. Once we have ruled out infectious causes, we can then try a strict 8 week elimination diet trial. The most common food allergens we see in dogs are to beef, dairy, and chicken. We recommend trying a prescription hypoallergenic diet during a diet trial as these have less cross contamination and are more hypoallergenic than commercial brands. Simply choosing "another flavor" doesn't guarantee that the new diet doesn't contain the allergen we're trying to rule out which is why prescription diets are necessary. It's also important to not give treats that aren't prescribed as hypoallergenic during this time because this can interfere with the results of the elimination diet. As a substitute, pet owners can reserve some of their pet's daily ration as treats! Another thing to watch out for is food theft if you have more than one pet, which could also interfere with results and will require careful monitoring.
After treating for and ruling out infectious causes and doing the diet trial, we make our diagnosis of allergies. Some cats and dogs are lucky enough to be seasonal and we treat when symptoms are present, while other pets have year round allergies and need more routine treatment.
How do we treat allergies?
The most important aspect to take away from treating allergies is that there is no cure to allergies and managing the symptoms can be a lifetime commitment. This can make these cases frustrating for the pets as well as the owners. In veterinary medicine we try our best to control the symptoms (like itching) as best we can to keep your pet comfortable. This might include frequent wiping of paws and medicated baths if the allergy is to something environmental, trying a variety of different diets to see what protein the pet responds best to and/or medication.
Unfortunately, it has been found recently that human antihistamines have little to no effect in our allergy patients. Although we use them for our stuffy noses and itchy eyes as humans, our canine patients are being treated for different clinical signs. Cats should never be given medicine without the direct orders of a veterinarian as many common medications are highly toxic to cats. Thankfully, we now have newer pharmaceuticals on the market for our pets that are safe to use long term, such as Apoquel, Cytopoint and Atopica. These medications quickly and effectively block the itch cycle in majority of our allergy cases bringing fast itch relief for pets.
Immunotherapy is another treatment option for chronic allergy pets. This is when we take blood and sometimes do intradermal testing to find out what the pet is allergic to, in order to start allergen injections specific to that dog or cat to try and desensitize their immune system. Companies now have injectable as well as oral administration options. Seventy-five percent of dogs respond very well to allergy injections and it is the safest treatment we have to use long term. For pets who are chronic and we are considering allergy injections, there is also the option of referral to a board-certified dermatologist which we are comfortable offering when we think it is a good option for your pet.
We hope you've found this information helpful! If you think your pet may have an allergy, let us know so we can get your dog or cat the relief they need.