Does Your Dog or Cat Suffer From Allergies?

Allergies in dogs and cats can be one of the most aggravating and frustrating experiences possible, for the pet, the owner and even the veterinarian. Often times, it is difficult to find the exact reason as to why your pet is itchy or has allergies, and can be even more difficult to keep allergies under control.

Severe pruritus (itching) in pets can be broken down into a couple of basic categories as to their cause. Most of the time allergies, parasites that live on the skin, or a combination of both are the main contributing factors.

Allergies can include:
      1. Atopic dermatitis: development of an allergic reaction over time to something that is normally benign, such as pollen or dust. Certain breeds can be at higher risk for developing atopic dermatitis.
      2. Food allergies: development of an allergic reaction to certain ingredients in the diet. The most common food allergies developed are towards beef, poultry, corn, wheat and dairy products.

External factors on the skin include:
      1. Fleas: fleas can cause severe itching in dogs and especially in cats. As few as one or two bites in cats can cause a bad reaction.
      2. Bacteria / yeast infections: these are typically secondary infections that can add to underlying problems. Yeast infections, particularly those caused by Malassezia, can be terribly pruritic.

Flea dermatitis in a cat
Unlike in humans, where we typically see allergies manifested as itchy eyes, a runny nose or sneezing, our pets usually show their problems through their skin. This can include red / irritated skin, hair loss from scratching so much, ear infections, and of course, pruritus.
How do we determine why our pet is so pruritic? First, we make sure that they are on an appropriate flea control product. Proper flea control is important to help rule out one of the main factors listed above. Once we know that fleas are not a problem, but pruritus is still present, then we continue to look for the underlying problem.

Atopic dermatitis in dogs
For bacteria or yeast infections, medication is usually the first choice for control. Sometimes, if there is atopic dermatitis or a food allergy present, these external infections may occur over and over again, and will not be able to be easily controlled until the underlying problem is addressed first.
Determining if your pet has a food allergy, and to what food, can take a long time. Patients typically go on a food trial that lasts for 8-12 weeks minimum. A single, “novel” protein diet, such as duck, bison or venison based (a type of meat that your pet has never had before) is used. Once the pruritus is under control with the new diet, other ingredients are gradually added in. This way, we can determine exactly what food ingredient your pet is allergic to, and can then avoid it in the future.
For atopic dermatitis, the exact known cause can be difficult to determine. Ruling out all other causes for pruritus must be done first. Sometimes it is necessary to perform an intradermal skin test, where a very small amount of many different types of allergens, such as weeds, pollens, and grasses, are injected into the skin. We then look for a reaction to the allergen, and can determine what that allergen is and how to avoid it. Sometimes medication is required: in an oral form, topical, or a combination of both. The idea is to keep your pet as comfortable as possible and on as little medication as possible.

Controlling allergies and pruritus can take a lot of dedication on the owner’s part. In following an appropriate plan by your veterinarian, the lives of both you and your pet can be made much more comfortable. No one wants to be awakened every night to the sound of their poor pet constantly scratching. Taking control of allergies can take a long time, and sometimes there are relapses. Just remember to follow the advice of your veterinarian, and in the end, it will all be worth it, for you and your pet.

Byron Bowers, DVM