Aunt Melba’s golden retriever has a hot spot again. The neighbor’s pit bull always smells like corn chips. Your bichon won’t stop scooting and obsessively licking their feet. 

What could these pets possibly have in common?

Pet allergies express themselves in untraditional and uncomfortable ways, and make your pet’s life miserable. South Shores Pet Clinic is ready to relieve your pet’s discomfort and help you recognize potential allergy signs, before they get out of control.

What is a pet allergy?

An allergy is a hypersensitivity or overreaction of a pet’s immune system to a certain substance (i.e., the allergen) they encounter by inhalation, physical contact, or ingestion. An allergen in the body causes the release of histamine and other compounds, leading to an inflammatory reaction. This inflammatory reaction is the “cause” of visible allergy signs in pets. 

Allergies in people are characterized by respiratory signs, such as sneezing, runny nose, itchy throat, and watery eyes. In dogs and cats, pet allergies are primarily expressed through their skin. 

Types of pet allergies

 Pets are plagued with two main allergy types:

  • Environmental — A sensitivity to materials in the air, or that come in contact with the pet’s skin, such as pollen, dust, mold, or grasses 
  • Food — A sensitivity to consumed substances, most commonly beef, chicken, eggs, wheat, corn, soy, and dairy milk

A pet can suffer from both forms, but in general, true food allergies—which differ from food intolerance—are uncommon. Environmental allergies typically worsen seasonally, while food allergies do not improve. After examining your pet and discussing their home life, our veterinarian will be able to determine why your pet is suffering.

Allergy signs in pets

Unfortunately for pets, allergies can look like run-of-the-mill skin conditions. Compound that with the incorrect belief that frequent scratching is normal dog behavior, or that a certain breed “always” gets ear infections, and you can easily see why many allergic pets go undiagnosed. Here are some ways that both allergy forms can present in pets.

  • Scratching Occasional scratching can be a normal, reflexive behavior in response to a stimulus, but frequent, intense scratching is abnormal, and should be investigated by your veterinarian.
  • Licking, chewing, and rubbing   Pets will commonly lick and chew their feet, legs, and abdomen, and rub their face and ears.
  • Ear problems Itchy ears and chronic ear infections that return after medical treatment can signal an allergy.
  • Hot spots These are hairless, irritated, crusting lesions often found on the pet’s legs, neck, or chest. 
  • Hair loss — Typically a result of frequent licking or chewing, hair loss at the tail base can indicate flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), a hypersensitivity reaction to flea saliva. 
  • Red, irritated, or scaling skin The pet’s skin may have a distinct odor, often described as smelling like corn chips.  
  • Recurring skin infections Yeast and bacteria are naturally found on the skin’s surface. When pets scratch and bite in response to the inflammation, the self-inflicted wounds allow the fungal and bacterial organisms deeper into the tissues, leading to infection. Chronic infections and irritation result in thickened and callused skin. 
  • Recurring anal sac impaction  Chronic inflammation from an allergy can lead to narrowing of the anal sac duct, and prevent proper emptying. 
  • Gastrointestinal signs Intestinal upset is uncommon in pets with food allergies, and is associated more frequently with food intolerance.

Pet food allergy versus food intolerance

The term “food allergy” is commonly misunderstood and misused. Most negative reactions to food are not food allergies, but food intolerance. An allergy involves a reaction from the body’s immune system, but food intolerance does not trigger an immune response, and rather involves vomiting, diarrhea, a large stool volume, gas, grass eating, and abdominal discomfort. 

Testing and treating your pet for allergies

Veterinary dermatologists are best for testing your pet for environmental allergens. However, since testing is expensive and time-consuming, and requires injecting the pet with many common allergens to assess for a physical reaction, owners often turn to testing only as a last resort. 

  • Environmental allergies — Pets with suspected environmental allergies are first treated for any existing skin or ear infections, plus a short course of steroids, topical treatments, medicated shampoos, or medication to break the itching cycle, and calm inflammation. By providing the pet with relief, and allowing their skin barrier to heal, our veterinarian can determine potential reaction causes, and provide long-term solutions.
  • Food allergies No formal testing is available for food allergies or intolerance. The only reliable approach to diagnosing and managing a food allergy or intolerance is a food elimination diet, which is a process of elimination that involves a veterinary diet or over-the-counter food that the pet has never previously eaten. For reliable results, the pet must eat only this food for at least six to eight weeks. If the pet improves on the novel diet, ingredients from the previous diet can be reintroduced one at a time, and the pet watched for a reaction, which would identify the specific ingredients causing the allergy.

The world of pet allergies can be complex and frustrating, but don’t let your pet suffer another season. South Shores Pet Clinic wants to provide your pet with relief from their suffering, starting with a complete physical examination. Call us to schedule your pet’s appointment.