It’s that time of year again…time for crisp evenings, falling leaves, pumpkin flavored beverages, and plant allergens mixed in with all of it. Just like humans, our canine and feline companions can develop seasonal allergies. However, they show these in a slightly different way. How can you tell if your pet is one of the many with environmental allergies?
While humans allergies typically manifest as runny noses and itchy eyes, allergies in our pets more frequently involve the skin. Dogs typically absorb allergens through their skin, which can trigger a systemic response. The most common sign of allergies in pets is itchiness, also called pruritus. While this can be seen as scratching, it may also involve licking, chewing, biting, or gnawing. Many dogs that develop recurrent ear infections do so because of underlying allergies. Does your dog seem to spend entire evenings nibbling his paws? Does he keep you up at night with constant licking? It might be time to head to the vet.
The first thing your vet will do is ask questions about your pet’s symptoms and behavior. This may include asking about where your pet is itchiest, if the itch gets worse at certain times of the year, and what food your pet is on. The next step will be ruling out other common causes of itchy skin. Atopy (canine environmental allergies) is what is called a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that the way to prove that an animal has it is to rule out other causes. Searching for other problems is especially important because animals with environmental allergies can have concurrent allergies to other stimuli, including insect bites and food. They are also prone to secondary skin infections. Your vet may suggest tests including skin or ear cytology (swabs to be looked at on a microscope) or skin scrapes to rule out mites.
He or she may also discuss a food trial. The only way to rule out a food allergy as a contributing factor to your pet’s itch is to conduct a strict six to eight week food trial. This will involve feeding your pet a prescription or over the counter diet with a novel protein source or hydrolyzed (broken down) protein. Almost all food allergies in our pets are a reaction to the protein source in a food, so a grain-free diet does not rule out food allergies. It is very important to not feed any other treats or table scraps during a food trial.
Specific allergy testing is also available for pets. Just like in humans, skin tests can be performed. A small amount of different allergens can be injected under the skin, and the size of the resultant swelling will indicate if your pet is allergic to that specific cause.
In some cases, part of the diagnosis may be based on response to treatment. This means that your vet may suggest starting certain medications for allergies, and seeing if your pet’s symptoms improve. In that case, it is important to pay attention to your pet’s behavior. This may include scoring their itchiness level each day and keeping track of trends.
So what kind of treatment options are available for allergic pets? The first step in treatment will be to address any concurrent skin infections or parasite infestations. This may include oral or topical antibiotics. It is also important for allergic pets to be on year round flea prevention. Dogs with environmental allergies are often allergic to fleas as well, and even a single flea bite in an allergic dog can cause days or weeks of itchiness.
Years ago, once secondary issues were addressed, the only option for allergic dogs and cats was to treat with steroids. These anti-inflammatory drugs are great at decreasing pruritus and inflammation, but long term use can cause a host of side effects, including decreased immune function and gastrointestinal effects. While steroids in moderation can be part of allergy management, they are not well suited as a stand alone treatment. Fortunately, the past few years have seen a variety of excellent allergy medications hit the market.
One medication, called oclacitinib (Apoquel) targets a specific enzyme in the itch pathway. It has far fewer side effects than steroids, and can safely be used for long term treatment. Another option is Cytopoint injections (also called canine atopic dermatitis immunotherapeutic injections). These contain an antibody that binds to and inactivates one of the molecules involved in itchiness. Cytopoint injections are given at your vet once every four to eight weeks.
Cats and dogs can also receive immunotherapy shots, like humans with allergies. These injections contain tiny amounts of the allergens they react to. Over time, the amount of allergen in the shots can be increased, until the immune system no longer reacts to that molecule.
Additional products and supplements may be part of your pet’s treatment as well. Supplementing omega three and six fatty acids, either orally or topically, can encourage a healthy skin barrier and protect the body from exposure to allergens. Your vet may also suggest certain soothing shampoos or conditioners.
You may be wondering if there is anything you can do at home for your itchy pet. Although many allergic pets require medical intervention, environmental management can play an important role in improving their quality of life. This can include steps like regular vacuuming or installation of HEPA air filters to reduce exposure to dust mites. Pets that are allergic to pollen may also benefit from having their paws and bellies wiped off with baby wipes after coming indoors.
The most important thing to remember for allergic pets is that each animal is unique. There is no one magic fix to allergies, and treating itchy skin can be a long process, with multiple adjustments. However, progress can be made! If you are concerned about your dog or cat’s skin health, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with one of our doctors. Make this fall the least itchy season yet!