Friday's autumnal equinox on will kick off another season when some pets get downright out of whack because of seasonal allergies. If your cat or dog is licking its feet, scratching incessantly, rubbing at its ears (which may be smelly), then allergies might be to blame.
veterinarian Patricia Starnes says allergies are extremely common in pets. “I would guess that we probably see four out of 10 patients that have some form of allergy, whether it is an inhaled allergy, food allergy or flea allergy."
Pets are allergic to many of the same things as humans, except pets suffer skin irritations more than hay-fever symptoms. The skin gets itchy, red, raw and sometimes secondarily infected.
Allergies generally fall into three categories:
- Environmental — Inhalant (atopy) allergies are more common than contact allergies. Pollen and dust mites are most common.
- Food — Can be any part of an animal's diet and usually results from a genetic predisposition. Some types of food allergies are specific to certain breeds. Animals can be allergic to lamb or rice, chicken or beef. This can be a challenge, because most pet foods have the same ingredients.
- Insect — Some animals have hypersensitivity to contagious parasites and mosquitos.
Preventive techniques like these sometimes reduce allergy symptoms.
For Inhalant allergies:
- Wash bedding regularly
- Change the air filter in the house regularly, or even use an air purifier
- Wipe your pets' haircoat and paws down with a wet cloth to remove pollens from their fur when they come in from outside
For Food allergies:
- Be sure the pet does not get anything to eat that is not hypoallergenic. Fish is not a good choice of a hypoallergenic diet in cats as it is in dogs.
- Be sure that all treats and chews are hypoallergenic
For Flea allergies:
- Be very diligent about flea control and treating the environment
- Take a multi-modal approach to flea control, not relying on one technique, as this may lead to flea resistance
“If you can strengthen your pet's skin and immune system, this will help them be more resilient to allergies. The best way to do this is a good diet and supplementing with a probiotic and fish oils,” Starnes says. “If you know your pet has a seasonaly allergy, ask your vet for a dose of antihistamine that you can give. Antihistamines can really help if you start them at the very first sign of itching.”
Allergies are very similar in cats and dogs, she says. Minor differences include the fact that most flea allergies present as dermatitis and itching around the face and neck of cats as opposed to the tailhead in dogs.
When allergies are more serious, specialists such as Patricia White, a veterinary dermatologist with Atlanta Veterinary Skin & Allergy Clinic in Dunwoody.
"People bring their animals to me after they’ve gotten the standard care and it hasn’t helped," White says.
“Pets will get pollen allergies this time of year, usually weed pollens, as well as some grasses. Fleas are still an issue in the fall, especially in the Southeast, until we get a good hard frost in December,” she says.
"We generally start out with steroids and anti-itch medicine. Antihistamines only work in about 30% of animals and, even then, don't work in animals the same way as people," White says. "Some people are satisfied with the effect, but most find it doesn't work."
When the first line of defense fails, then the allergist performs an allergy "prick" test, or intradermal testing, to identify about 70 allergens.
"Some vets do blood allergy tests that are probably not as reliable as a skin test. The cost is probably comparable, and you get the benefit of having a dermatologist guide the owner though the process of desensitizing the animal," White says.
"We pick a set of pollens, molds, human dander, and cat or dog dander, then develop a vaccine based on the test results. It’s a precise, tailor-made vaccine for that animal," White says.
The owner, who is trained by the veterinarian to administer the vaccine under the skin, will start with an induction period, then gradually build the animal up to their therapeutic dose till the shots are given once a week or every other week.
"Sometimes we need to make some evironmental changes. If the dog is sleeping in the bed, it might be good to get them out of the bed, if they’re allergic to the owner. If the dog sleeps under the bed, then dust mites in the carpet may be a problem," White says.
Secondary bacterial and yeast infections on the animal's skin must be managed separately, such as with medicated shampoos.
"Shampoo therapy helps a lot," White says.
According to Robert Schick of Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Sandy Springs and Lawrenceville, the most common allergy for both dogs and cats is the house dust mite.
"Environmental and flea allergies can be seasonal, but most environmental allergies become nonseasonal," he says.
That's good news for those who already dreading spring allergy season.