It’s Allergy Season and, just like people, dogs and cats can have allergies too. Many pet owners are dealing with pet allergies and they might not even realise it.
First things first: Let’s explain what the term allergy means. Allergy refers to something your pet’s immune system is over-sensitive to; it is when your pets immune system overreacts to a foreign substance, called an allergen, thinking it is a threat to the body’s normal functioning. These allergens are normally dealt with easily by the immune system, but allergic animals (and people) have extreme reactions to them. Their bodies, in attempting to get rid of these allergens, mount an extreme response, releasing large amounts of histamine that results in a chain of biochemical reactions that can cause a variety of skin, digestive and respiratory issues.
Hayfever is the most common allergic symptom we see in humans, whereas in dogs and cats we see skin problems as the most common symptom.
There are breeds of dogs that are more prone to having allergic reactions, they include: Terriers, Setters, Retrievers and Flat-faced breeds (Boxers, pugs, bulldogs and shar-pei’s). Usually young and middle aged pets are more prone to allergic conditions. As they age their allergies may reduce as their systems don’t release histamines as effectively so certain allergic reactions will reduce with age. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Common allergy symptoms include:
- Itchy, red, moist or scabbed skin;
- Hair Loss
- Increased scratching, particularly tail base and back (your pet will often scratch excessively, and even rub against furniture or on a carpet just to alleviate the intense itchiness);
- Itchy, runny eyes;
- Itchy ears and recurrent ear infections (quite common and often not realised);
- Vomiting and Diarrhoea;
- Excessive Snoring;
- Itchy paws – chewing of paws, swollen paws;
- Constant licking, scratching, can’t settle.
If your pet displays any of the symptoms listed above you should contact your Veterinarian and discuss the possible ways to identify the causing allergen.
There are numerous allergens that could be causing your pet to have an allergic reaction; we divide them into 3 broad categories:
- Contact Allergens
- Inhaled Allergens
- Food Allergens
When a pet is allergic, it is very likely that a number of different allergens will affect them, from one or more of the above categories. Seasonal allergies (mostly during spring or summer) would suggest some form of environmental allergen, such as grass or pollen, but since we live in South Africa that is warm throughout most of the year, it is common to have these environmental allergies occurring all year round.
Here are some common antigens that affect dogs and cats:
Flea saliva (an allergic reaction can be caused by as little as one bite from a flea), grasses, plants, pollens, dust, dust mites, soaps, cigarette smoke, perfumes, food ingredients (beef, dairy, fish, eggs, chicken, pork, corn, wheat, rice and soy), additives, preservatives, dyes, mould spores, prescriptions drugs and cleaning products to name but a few.
Fleas are by far the most common cause of allergic skin disorders so VERY strict flea control, both on the animal and in the environment, is essential before you attempt to diagnose other causes of the allergic reaction.
- Test and identify: The optimal way to treat a pet’s allergy is to avoid the allergen, but first you need to identify the allergen responsible. You can do this by having allergy tests done by your local veterinarian, who will draw blood to be sent away for an allergy profile.
- Feed Trial: If you think it’s a food allergy you could feed put your pet on a diet trial for 12 weeks, consisting of a specific diet that is formulated for allergic conditions, or contains a novel protein and carbohydrate (one that the animal has never been exposed to before). During this time your pet must not receive any treats, table food or flavoured medication; they will stay on this diet while the symptoms clear (hopefully – this will confirm a food allergy is indeed the cause), then you would begin to reintroduce old foods one at a time to see which cause an allergic reaction. This is a long process but will help in figuring out the food allergen responsible.
- Avoidance: Prevention is better than cure, be it flea control or avoiding certain grass types etc. are essential in allergic animals though not always practical or possible.
- Skin Health and Support: Weekly bathing with specialised shampoos (It must be a dog or cat formulated shampoo, one preferably for skin issues) could relieve itching and remove the environmental allergens from your pets skin. If your dog swims in the sea, it may help to wash the salt off afterwards to reduce the drying out effect on the skin.Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is good to reduce itchiness and inflammation over time while coconut oil contains lauric acid, which can also help decrease the production of yeast and reduce inflammation.
- Medications: Beyond the scope of this article, except to say that antihistamines are generally not as effective as in humans, and homeopathic medications may be effective in some cases. Consult your veterinarian for the best treatment options.
Many allergy cases can be managed with a combination of allergen avoidance, special diets, shampoos, over the counter flea prevention products and supplements. If these do not work, then medication may be needed. Be aware that allergies are rarely cured, but only controlled, as the inherent condition within the individual animal remains.