At the end of a busy summer day, all you want to do is relax—but your pet won’t stop scratching. You nod off briefly, only to wake up to your pet’s shaking head, jingling collar, and fervent scratching—again. The more they scratch, the more upset they become, and the irritation that started in a single ear becomes more widespread until they are rubbing their whole body against the furniture.
Summer has arrived, and so have our pets’ environmental allergies, known as atopic dermatitis or allergic skin disease. Highland Veterinary Hospital wants to end the itch by helping you identify and understand your pet’s allergies.
What is a pet allergy?
Knowing the definition of an allergy can help pet owners understand their pet’s reaction. An allergy is a hypersensitivity or overactive reaction of a pet’s immune system when an allergen “invades” their body. Pets generally experience three allergy categories:
- Environmental — Allergens, such as pollens, mold, dust, and grasses, are usually airborne.
- Food — Typically, protein in food is the culprit, but carbohydrates can also be a problem.
- Fleas — Pets with a flea allergy are reacting to the saliva in a flea bite.
Pet owners should know that pet allergies can stem from multiple sources, but this information is focused specifically on environmental allergies.
How will I know if my pet has an environmental allergy?
While people sniffle and sneeze, pets primarily respond to environmental allergens through their skin, rather than their respiratory system. In some pets, atopic dermatitis has a genetic component, predisposing them to certain sensitivities. Chronic itchiness (i.e., pruritus) is the hallmark of allergies when external parasites, such as fleas, are absent. Common areas of irritation include your pet’s feet, face, ears, forelimbs, armpits, abdomen, and groin.
The affected skin on a pet with atopic dermatitis may initially appear irritated, with small raised papules or red patches. As pets respond to the itching with frenzied scratching, or overgrooming in cats, they damage the integrity of their skin, resulting in tissue breakdown. Once the skin’s protective barrier is dismantled, bacteria and fungi begin to multiply and create an infection, which ratchets up your pet’s discomfort.
With a chronic allergy, the skin develops crusting, hair loss, thickening, darkened color, or discharge, and repeated treatment may not affect the chronic infection. Cats may have small red scabs all over their bodies.
Unfortunately, the cycle of self-inflicted harm will continue and worsen until exposure to the allergen is removed, which is impossible with many environmental triggers, or your pet gets relief from the incessant itching with veterinary treatment or management.
How are environmental allergies diagnosed?
Allergies are challenging to accurately diagnose. First, your pet will need a veterinary physical examination and dermatology consultation at Highlands Veterinary Hospital. Then, our veterinarian will review your pet’s home life and medical history, to pinpoint the timeline and nature of your pet’s allergic behavior. They will also microscopically evaluate your pet’s skin cells, looking for secondary bacterial and/or fungal infections.
Allergy testing for pets is performed through a series of allergens injected right below the skin’s surface, and measuring and recording any reaction. Based on a pet’s results, immunotherapy treatment can be used to gradually “re-educate” the immune system through small, measured allergen exposures. Immunotherapy is administered with a series of injections custom designed for the pet’s specific allergies. Although immunotherapy typically offers the best results for allergy treatment, some pets may take up to one year to show improvement. Additionally, immunotherapy is successful in only 60 percent to 70 percent of patients.
Since environmental allergies cannot be “cured,” veterinarians may choose to medically manage a pet’s specific signs and secondary skin issues, rather than attempting to identify specific triggers. Your pet’s customized treatment plan may include:
- Short course of steroids — While steroids are not safe long-term, they provide fast relief from the misery of chronic itching and inflammation.
- Topical creams or ointments — These topical treatments can provide temporary relief.
- Antibiotics or antifungals — These are needed for any secondary infections.
- Medicated shampoo or spray — Topical treatments help to soothe irritated skin. Dermatologists recommend daily application of topical treatments unti skin responds, and then every four days for maintenance.
- Immunomodulatory medication — Available in injectable (i.e., Cytopoint) or oral tablet (i.e., Apoquel) forms, these drugs in essence “turn off” the receptors for itching in pets.
- Food — Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids can help improve skin health. Our favorites are Royal Canin Skin Support; Hill’s Derm Defense; and Purina DRM (Dermatologic Management).
Can I protect my pet from environmental allergies?
The nature of environmental allergies makes prevention impossible. Depending on your pet’s specific allergy, they may find natural relief with a change of season, but some allergens, such as dust, dander, and some types of mold, are found indoors year-round, and management of their problems is the best course of action.
Help your pet suffering from environmental allergies, or any allergy, by staying aware of their normal behavior and visiting Highlands Veterinary Hospital at the first sign of change. Itchy pets aren’t “normal,” and we can help, so call us to schedule your pet’s appointment.