Allergies make life miserable for pets and people. But, because dog and cat allergies don’t always resemble our own, they often go unnoticed—leaving pets alone with their misery. Understanding pet allergies can help you identify early warning signs and seek prompt veterinary care at South Shores Pet Clinic. Here are some helpful facts about the unique nature of pet allergies.
Allergic pets are more likely to scratch than sneeze
You struggle through seasonal allergies with a runny nose and red, itchy eyes, and you likely expect your allergic pet to show the same signs. However, dogs and cats more often experience allergies—both seasonal and food-related—through their skin, meaning that your dog’s tag-jangling scratching or your cat’s intense grooming is more than a nuisance—your pet is reacting to an allergen causing an inflammatory response.
The particular allergen bothering your pet may be inhaled (e.g., pollen, dust), ingested (e.g., food allergies), or parasitic (e.g., fleas). Affected areas can be localized (e.g., paws, legs) or generalized over the whole body. Scratching, chewing, and licking are typical signs, plus additional signs that may include:
- Hair loss
- Inflamed or irritated skin
- Crusting lesions, hives, or papules
- Coughing, sneezing, or wheezing
- Eye discharge
Pets and environmental allergies
Like their owners, dogs and cats can be affected by environmental or seasonal allergies, which typically appear during the first 6 months to 3 years of their life, and include common substances such as tree pollen, grasses, weeds, mold, mildew, and dust. Seasonal allergies will intensify during the spring and summer, and then fade during cooler months, while non-seasonal allergens, such as mold and dust often persist year-round. Pets can experience multiple allergens at once, making diagnosis challenging and treatment complex.
Pets and food allergies
Unlike environmental allergies, which occur during a dog or cat’s early years, food allergies can begin at any time, including later in life. Pet owners are often surprised when their pet becomes allergic to a food they’ve eaten their entire life. This occurs because the pet gradually becomes sensitized to a particular ingredient, until ordinary contact creates a strong physical reaction. Such late-life allergy onset is uncommon, but not impossible, and determining the nature of your pet’s allergy can be challenging.
Contrary to popular belief, grains and corn are not the most common pet allergens. Instead, proteins, such as chicken, beef, lamb, soy, and dairy, top the list for dogs and cats, with cats also sensitive to fish.
Your veterinarian will rely on detailed information from you—including when signs first appeared—to guide their diagnosis.
Pets and flea allergies
Some dogs and cats are severely allergic to a protein found in flea saliva, and a single flea bite can set off an inflammatory cascade involving intense itching (i.e., pruritus), inflammation, and crusty skin lesions. Flea-allergic dogs may have generalized hair loss that begins over the tail, while cats can experience dermatitis of the face, neck, and back. Both species can suffer secondary skin infections and injury caused by chronic irritation and moisture.
Because many flea prevention products kill only the fleas that bite the pet, pets can suffer with flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) despite being current on flea and tick prevention.
Pets, allergies, and treatments
Pets with allergies can seldom be treated—only managed. What works and what doesn’t?
- Over-the-counter antihistamines — These do not help allergic pets. Owners often ask about diphenhydramine (i.e., Benadryl) to resolve their pet’s allergies, but despite being generally safe at the appropriate dose, the drug likely will do little to alleviate your pet’s discomfort. Human antihistamines, such as cetirizine, diphenhydramine, and loratadine, are designed to relieve respiratory symptoms and may do little to block your pet’s itchiness.
To ensure your pet’s safety, never give your dog or cat any medication without approval from your South Shores Pet Clinic veterinarian. Many antihistamine preparations contain decongestants, which are dangerous for pets.
- Immunotherapy injections — These may help. While a pet’s exposure to food allergens can be controlled, escaping common substances, such as dust, dander, mold, and pollen, is more difficult. For pets with severe environmental allergies, specialized testing may be recommended to precisely identify the offending allergens. Once this testing is complete, immunotherapy (i.e., allergy injections), which involves inoculating the pet with gradually increasing allergen doses until the immune system no longer reacts (i.e., desensitization) can be effective.
- Carefully controlled diets —If your pet has a food allergy, we will recommend a feeding trial to confirm the diagnosis and identify the allergen. Feeding trials require a disciplined owner, as the pet is allowed to eat only their prescribed food—usually a hydrolyzed veterinary diet—for six to eight weeks. If your pet improves, we can confirm a food allergy, and ingredients can then gradually be reintroduced until the allergen is identified. However, some owners are so relieved to see their pet healthy and comfortable that they choose to permanently feed the prescription food.
Allergies can be discouraging and frustrating for pet owners. However, although allergies cannot be cured, pets with allergies can live long, comfortable lives with proper care and management. Owners must be vigilant and monitor their pet for flare ups, and bring their pet to South Shores Pet Clinic at the first sign of an allergic response.