People aren’t the only unfortunate victims of allergies—our pets suffer, too. We might have itchy eyes and a drippy nose, but pets’ allergies manifest in different ways. An often difficult and frustrating condition to manage, your pet’s allergies evolve throughout her life, requiring changes in her treatment plan. But, with dedication and a detailed log of your pet’s allergy flares, together we can keep your furry friend comfortable.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system. This hypersensitivity is triggered by a substance known as an allergen, which is usually a protein found in foods, plants, insects, or animals. Over time, multiple exposures to an allergen, such as tree pollen or fleas, sensitizes the immune system. During subsequent encounters, a pet’s immune system will kick into high gear, triggering the release of histamine from mast cells within the body. Histamine is a potent compound, causing redness, swelling, and itching, which we commonly associate with such allergic reactions as bee stings and poison ivy contact. Most commonly, pets with allergies will experience skin reactions, instead of the typical eye and nose issues people experience.
How do I know if my pet has allergies?
While red eyes and sneezing may indicate an allergy flare in your pet, she is more likely to suffer from skin issues. A pet afflicted with allergies may display any number of the following signs:
- Red, inflamed skin
- Chronic ear infections
- “Yeasty” odor to the skin
- Excessive licking and chewing, especially at the paws
- Anal gland impactions
- Hair loss
- Pustules on the skin
- Hot spots
- Swollen paws
What might cause my pet’s allergies?
Pinpointing the cause of your pet’s allergies is a trying process. Many pets suffer from reactions to multiple allergens, and, over time, can become allergic to more substances. The most common allergens fall into three categories:
- Flea allergy — Flea allergies are often simple to identify. A pet with a flea allergy usually presents with the hallmark sign of hair loss on the hind end. Fleas love to congregate on a pet’s rump at the tail head, wreaking destruction in the form of hair loss and an itchy hindquarters. For hypersensitive pets, all it takes is one flea bite to trigger a massive immune response.
- Environmental allergy — Environmental allergies are much more complex than flea allergies. They can be caused by inhalant or contact allergens, such as mold, pollen, dander, dust mites, fabrics, and cleaning solutions. More difficult to manage than a flea allergy, determining the cause of an environmental allergy is a trial-and-error process. Chart your pet’s allergy signs to help identify the allergen, whether it’s year-round dust mites or seasonal pollens.
- Food allergy — Food allergies are greatly misunderstood by most pet owners. The vast majority of pets do not suffer from food allergies, but many people believe their pets cannot tolerate corn or other grains because of a food allergy. In fact, the itching your pet experiences is often caused by environmental allergens, as very few dogs and cats are diagnosed with food allergies. Pets with true food allergies are also more commonly allergic to protein sources rather than grains. Chicken, beef, and dairy are the most common food allergens to affect pets.
How can I manage my pet’s allergies?
Managing an itchy pet’s allergies is an ever-changing process. As your pet ages, her sensitivity to certain substances changes, requiring a different treatment plan. Options for managing allergies include:
- Antihistamines — Antihistamines, such as Benadryl or Claritin, are not as effective in pets as they are in people. Few pets find relief from itching with these products, but they are fairly safe if you’d like to discuss using them for your pet’s allergies.
- Corticosteroids — Steroids of the prednisone variety (not the muscle-building type), work to suppress the entire immune system, which is not ideal. While histamine release is dampened by steroids, the body’s defensive mechanisms are also reduced. A depressed immune system allows infections and disease processes to occur, and long-term usage can also harm the liver.
- Allergy-specific medications — Newer medications, such as Apoquel and Cytopoint, work by targeting the itch response. Rather than suppressing the entire immune system, these products focus on blocking the pathway that leads to itching. With far fewer side effects than steroids, pets do well with long-term usage of these medications.
- Immunotherapy — Immunotherapy is essentially a vaccine for allergies. Your pet’s allergy profile is analyzed, and a personalized “vaccine” is created based on her allergens. Immunotherapy requires you to give your pet weekly or monthly injections to reduce her allergic response over time, but this form of allergy treatment provides excellent management.
- Prescription diets — For pets with food allergies, prescription diets of novel or hydrolyzed proteins help eliminate allergy signs. By removing the protein source your pet is allergic to, she can find comfort in a highly controlled food.
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