February 2014

Allergies and the Itchy Pet

Author: Stacy Davidson, DVM

Dogs and cats can have allergies just like people. Instead of runny noses, sneezing, and congestion, allergies in pets can cause itchy skin. All that scratching, biting, and licking can lead to secondary skin and ear infections. There are three types of allergies: flea, food and “seasonal,” also known as atopy. Some pets may have more than one type.

Flea allergies
Flea allergies are the most common skin disease in dogs and cats. Pets with flea allergies usually chew at the base of their tail. Sometimes you may not think it is fleas, because you do not see them. If your pet is chewing at its tail base, 95 percent of the time, it is due to a flea allergy. It only takes a few bites to set off a sensitive pet, and because of over-grooming it can be difficult to find a flea. Using a safe and effective flea control product monthly is an easy way to prevent flea allergies from becoming a problem.

Food allergies
Dogs with food allergies often have an itchy face and feet as well as chronic ear infections. Cats usually have itching around the face or neck. Even if your pet has been eating the same diet, it could still have a food allergy. Food allergies develop over time, because the immune system has to produce enough antibodies to trigger an allergic reaction. The allergen is usually a major protein or carbohydrate ingredient. Beef, dairy and wheat are the most common food allergens for dogs. Beef, dairy and fish are the most common allergens for cats.

The best way to diagnose a food allergy is with a strict food trail on a prescription diet from your veterinarian. Even small amounts of an allergen from treats, people food, or contamination of the pet food during the manufacturing process can interfere with food trials.

“Seasonal allergies”or atopy
“Seasonal allergies” or atopy are also common in this area. Atopy is an inherited condition in which pets develop sensitivities from exposure to commonplace and otherwise harmless substances. This includes the pollen of weeds, grasses, and trees. Dust mites and molds in the house are also common allergens, so even strictly indoor pets can have atopy. Allergies worsen over time, and your pet’s “seasonal allergy” may eventually cause it to be itchy all year round. Pets with atopy tend to be itchy on the belly, underside of tail, and feet, they can also have chronic ear infections.

Your veterinarian can perform allergy testing to diagnose atopy. Hypo-sensitization shots and/or medications can be used to help relieve atopy symptoms, but there is no cure.

Allergies can be a frustrating issue for you and your pet. Your veterinarian can prescribe medications to give your pet relief from itching, secondary skin infections, and ear infections. Steroids help stop the itching but can have side effects if used regularly. Long-term management of allergies can include diet, medicated baths, antihistamines, omega fatty acids and other medications to control itching and secondary infections.

Dr. Stacy Davidson practices veterinary medicine at Heritage Animal Hospital, located at 130 Arrow Rd., Suite 101 on Hilton Head Island. For more information, call (843) 842-8331.

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