Pet Points: Pets also can suffer from allergies

by Symptom Advice on April 21, 2012

April 21, 2012 12:00 am by Lawrence Gerson, V.M.D.

Spring is in full bloom, and peak allergy season is not far behind. just like people, pets react to inhaled allergens.

Ask anyone with a black car if tree pollens are out this time of year, as you can actually see the pollen on the surface of a clean car. Later in the season grass pollens fill the air followed by the weeds late in the summer. Add in the possibility of food allergies, and in some cases flea allergy, and that is why we see itchy pets until winter sets in.

Additionally molds, dust and a number of other substances can stimulate an itchy reaction in pets. Sneezing and a runny nose are not seen as much in pets. What we see is itching, especially of the face and feet, as well as ear and skin irritation. we often call the itchy condition atopy.

Atopy and its associated hot spots and ear problems are the most common ailments we see in companion animals. Some dogs can be itchy without any skin lesions. others scratch themselves and create open bleeding sores.

Owners may learn to avoid exposure to the outdoors with allergic pets. Keeping pets away from fresh cut grass or high weeds can help prevent reactions. Even a simple bath can remove allergens and reduce itching. Some of these dogs do not need treatment, but some do better with a prescription for antihistamines.

Moderately affected dogs may require antihistamines and corticosteroids. Veterinarians must use corticosteroids carefully due to the side effects of increasing water consumption and urine output. many a dog has had urine accidents in the home from too much medication. Owners are always cautioned to use as little corticosteroid medication as possible to provide relief from allergy symptoms. after controlling atopy we taper the dose of corticosteroids to an every other day schedule when possible to not further suppress the adrenal gland. The cortico-steroids are anti-inflammatory and help to stop the body from reacting to the allergen.

Severe problems in dogs can be seen when allergies persist for a prolonged period of time and dogs have irritated their face and feet. Some of the severe atopy in dogs requires allergy testing and hypo sensitization. this process is similar to allergy injections in people with a slow increase in exposure to antigens. The process can be difficult and not always successful after months or even a year of injections. The benefit is, if injections work, we can decrease the use of other medication.

Recently we have been using cyclosporine as an immune modulator to decrease the reaction to allergens. although expensive and with some potential side effects, cyclosporine can be useful to decrease the chronic use of corticosteroids. this new treatment may be safer in the long run to help animals be more comfortable.

In pets that are itchy all year we sometimes suspect foods as an additional factor. Special diets with limited antigens of protein and carbohydrates are sometimes tried in a food elimination trial. many pets will benefit from diets of fish and potatoes because of the limiting of other antigens in the regular food and the high fatty acids in the fish. Owners who change their pet diets to lamb or fish will make it more difficult to use that type of diet in a food trial later in life. When we have an itchy pet we always make sure they are on a good diet and we often supplement with omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

Flea season brings a whole new set of pets into the office. Even if no fleas are seen on exam, fleas can be an issue as pets react to the flea saliva. Combine an allergic pet with a few flea bites, and it can have a massive breakout of skin issues. Cats can often groom off fleas, and veterinarians often have to look for flea dirt or observe the distribution pattern of the hair loss.

Cats are seen at the veterinary office for a variety of skin issues. Flea allergy and other itchy conditions are often treated with a long-acting corticosteroid injection. although less of a problem with side effects, caution is again advised because diabetes in cats can be an issue with too frequent injections.

Dogs that are itchy can scratch or chew large open sores called “hot spots” very quickly. these hot spots need to be shaved, cleaned and treated before they progress to larger and deeper wounds. Topical and oral antibiotics and corticosteroids are used to help these hot spots to heal. Additionally tranquilizers and Elizabethan collars are sometimes needed to prevent self trauma.

Veterinarians see ear infections in pets daily. although we usually use a combination with topical antibiotics, corticosteroid and yeast medications along with an ear cleaner, the underlining problem is often atopy.

Once a pet's skin is irritated, skin infections can be the primary or secondary problem. Weeks of appropriate antibiotic therapy may be needed to get skin infections under control.

Allergies in pets can be mild, moderate or severe. getting a proper diagnosis and treatment is critical to control atopy, and that can make pets more comfortable throughout the allergy season.

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