April showers bring May flowers! Unfortunately along with the flowers comes the re-emergence of allergy season. Nationwide pet insurance, recently sorted its database of more than 550,000 insured pets to determine the top 10 dog medical conditions in 2015. Number one on that list was Skin Allergies. I have witnessed first hand how very frustrating this situation is for pet owners. The thing is most allergies are multi-factorial. It’s not uncommon to allergy test a pet and see that Max is allergic to more than just the chicken in his dog food, he’s also allergic to molds, fleas, and three different types of grass. Over the next few paragraphs I hope to at the very least “scratch the surface” on pet allergies and what to do about them.
An allergy is a lifelong, condition where the body reacts to an allergen in a negative way. When left untreated, allergies are frequently known to cause secondary issues, such as skin and ear infections. (For all of you out there who are less than enthused to have a quick and dirty science lesson on WHY an allergy occurs feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph, for the rest of you i have done my best to give a CliffsNotes version of allergies in the next few sentences). The first time your pet is exposed to an allergen, his immune system will produce antibodies to it. Each exposure thereafter will cause a reaction to occur. This reaction will release a chemical called histamine, which causes many of the symptoms we see in our pets, collectively termed an allergic reaction. As the body tries to rid itself of the allergens, multiple clinical signs can appear. Essentially, the immune system is registering the allergen as being a dangerous substance that it must get rid of. Unfortunately, because pieces of the immune system are affected by genetics it has been shown that some breeds are more likely than others to struggle with allergies.
There are several common allergens your pet may encounter throughout it’s life including:
- Cigarette Smoke
- Perfume (including air fresheners)
So how will you know if your pet has an allergy? There are many clinical symptoms that are due to a primary allergic condition. If you witness your pet dealing with any of the following conditions (especially on a chronic basis) perhaps its time to discuss a change in your pet’s current lifestyle. Clinical signs of an allergy may include some or even ALL of the following:
- Runny eyes
- Licking (especially of the paws)
- Swollen or reddened skin
- Difficulty breathing
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Hair loss
What to do
The first step in treating allergies is to isolate and determine the allergen(s) which is causing the reactions. We can break down the most common allergens into four categories: pests (fleas), environment, contact, and food. Sometimes we will use allergy testing to attempt to discern specific allergens. The question is when we isolate the problem what do we do about it?
One of the most common allergies we see in our patients is caused by fleas. These allergies are triggered when fleas bite. Even a single bite as infrequently as every 3-5 days can lead to itching for days. This is just another reason why it is so important to use a flea preventative recommended by your veterinarian. Every flea preventative is not made equal. In a sea of active ingredients, and topicals vs orals it is important to use a product that is proven effective in not only killing fleas if they bite but preventing them from seeking residence on your pet altogether.
Environmental allergens are those that are inhaled, such as pollen and molds found outside (especially in spring, summer, and in the midwest – during Harvest). Your pet will likely be seen itching his/her feet, ears, groin, and underarms. Environmental allergies can even lead to hair loss in spots around the body from persistent scratching and chewing.
These are the reactions that occur when your pets skin gets in physical contact with a specific substance such as household cleaners, fertilizers, and insecticides. When introducing something new to your pet’s environment it is important to make sure it is not only non-toxic, but that your pet hasn’t picked up new behaviors (itching, licking, chewing) since the use of said product. If you notice Fluffy developed red paws after you cleaned your hardwood floors, you may want to search for a new product (and keep Fluffy away from the clean floors until a new cleaning method can be used)!
Food related allergies typically develop over time. In stark contrast to the information you have been made to believe by the marketing department of numerous pet foods, a food allergy is more likely to be caused by an animal protein, rather than a carbohydrate. Now that’s not to say that some pets cannot have allergies to corn, wheat, etc but its also important to consider any preservatives or dyes found in your pet’s diet. Pets with food allergies will likely need a specialized diet. The best way to determine if your pet has a food allergy is to attempt a food trial. This involves feeding your pet a prescription diet based on novel proteins and carbohydrates that he or she has likely never encountered. A minimum of 10-12 weeks on these diets (without the introduction of any outside food) is necessary to determine whether the source of allergy for your pet is food related. After the allotted period of time you may continue on these specialty diets, or begin to reintroduce foods one at a time to attempt to find the offending culprit for your pet’s clinical signs.
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. Nonprescription treatments can be used to treat some allergies. This includes antihistamines, and Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids (these take ~4-6 weeks before taking effect). In fact antihistamines and fatty acids work synergistically, meaning they work even better when used together compared to being used alone! Frequent medicated baths using prescription shampoos may help relieve itchiness as well. Make sure you talk to your vet before giving your pet any over the counter medications for proper dosing instructions.
Patients with severe allergies may be in need of prescription medications. Both injectible and oral steroids can be used to relieve signs of allergies, and are typically the first line of defense for allergies as many patients will respond within a few days of beginning treatment. However, they can have some long-term side-effects so it is important to discuss these with your veterinarian. Multiple other medications may be recommended by your doctor depending on the severity and even frequency of the problem. Allergy 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, and unfortunately in some pets, the injections do not give a desired therapeutic response.
Keep in mind that some pets (just like people) only have to battle allergies during certain months of the year. The unlucky few that are plagued with year round allergies may never be completely free of symptoms but with some hard work and diligent effort we can hope to make both you and your pet comfortable and stress-free.