Allergies occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to a substance, causing a multitude of undesirable signs. People suffer from allergies, and our pets do, too.
Which allergies can affect pets?
The substance that causes an allergy is called an allergen. Pets can be hypersensitive to any number of allergens, including medications and vaccines, but most pet allergies will fall into one, or a multiple, of these three categories:
- Environmental or inhalant allergy — This common pet allergy, also known as atopy or atopic dermatitis, occurs when a susceptible pet inhales a certain allergen that causes subsequent symptoms. Some common inhalant allergens, such as ragweed, grass pollen, or tree pollen, may cause seasonal signs. If your pet has an allergy to dust mites, mold, or mildew, signs may persist throughout the year.
- Food allergy — This less common allergy occurs when a pet is hypersensitive to a particular food ingredient. Dogs and cats are most commonly allergic to a protein, namely chicken or beef, although other food allergies are possible. Grain allergies are highly uncommon in dogs and cats.
- Flea allergy — This allergy, also known as flea allergy dermatitis, is the most common in pets. When a pet is allergic to a flea’s saliva, one bite on the skin can cause an intense reaction that usually leads to excessive chewing, biting, and hair loss around the tail base. Some dogs will develop moist “hot spots” as a result of a flea allergy.
What are the signs of allergies in pets?
Itching is by far the most common allergy sign in pets. Most people affected with inhalant allergies display upper respiratory signs such as sneezing, watery eyes, and an itchy throat. Pets can have similar signs, but signs related to the skin are more common. Pets with food allergies or sensitivities may also have gastrointestinal signs. Depending on the allergy type and severity, you may notice:
- Mild to intense pruritus (i.e., itching)
- Paw licking
- Skin biting
- Rubbing the face or body
- Ear scratching, or a foul odor from the ear
- Redness to the skin (i.e., erythema)
- Hair loss
- Red bumps (i.e., papules) or pus-filled bumps (i.e., pustules), often under the front legs, in the inguinal region, or on the abdomen
- Scales or dry skin
- Darkening or thickening of the skin (i.e., lichenification) in chronic cases
- Fleas, lice, or other ectoparasites
- Upper respiratory signs, such as red or watery eyes, sneezing, nasal discharge, and coughing
- Gastrointestinal signs, such as vomiting or diarrhea
How do I know the cause of my pet’s allergy?
Diagnosing specific allergies can be tedious and, at times, difficult. First, our team will examine your pet and take note of the distribution and types of signs. Where a flea allergy may cause skin lesions on the rear half of the body, a food allergy may cause more generalized skin disease, in addition to vomiting and diarrhea.
Unfortunately, an exam alone cannot diagnose specific allergies. We may first want to rule out a food allergy and recommend a strict elimination diet trial, which usually requires a prescription food and can take up to 12 weeks. Once a food allergy is considered unlikely, intradermal skin testing, typically under the guidance of a veterinary dermatologist, is the next step.
Are certain pets more prone to allergies?
While flea allergies are extremely common in both dogs and cats, dogs are much more likely to suffer from inhalant allergies than their feline friends. Certain dog breeds tend to be more prone to allergies, indicating a possible genetic component. Any purebred or mixed-breed dog can develop allergies, but common breeds include Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, boxers, Boston terriers, pit bull terriers, English bulldogs, and French bulldogs. Most pets will begin experiencing allergic signs between 6 months and 3 years of age.
How can I treat my pet’s allergies?
Once an allergy has been diagnosed in your dog, the symptoms can be minimized and the immune response calmed. Avoiding the suspected allergen altogether is ideal, but not always feasible. Allergy treatments may include:
- Targeted immunotherapy, also known as allergy shots — This treatment first requires intradermal skin testing
- Essential fatty acid supplements — To support the skin barrier
- Antibiotics — For secondary skin infections
- Anti-itch therapies, such as Apoquel, Cytopoint, steroids, or antihistamines — To address discomfort and decrease inflammation
- Medicated shampoos or topical treatments — To remove allergens, and to soothe and medicate the skin
- Ear or eye medications and cleaners
If you are noticing that your pet has allergy signs, don’t hesitate to contact us for an appointment. We will be happy to get your pet on the road to allergy recovery.