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Animal Skin and Allergy Clinic Blog

Understanding Pet Allergies: An Owner’s Guide

A brown and tan dog scratching itselfIt is a frequent diagnosis. The reason for your pet’s rash, ear infection, or hair loss is simply this: allergies. Most pet owners accept this diagnosis, even if they may not understand exactly what an allergy is or why it happens.

For pet owners who have a four legged friend who suffers from pet allergies, it is very important to understand what allergies are, why they happen, and what can be done. Keep reading to learn the basics about pet allergies.

What an Allergy Is

Pets and people alike suffer from allergies. Allergies are simply an overreaction of our immune system to things that enter or contact our bodies. These things, called allergens, can be almost anything. More common allergens include foods, chemicals, pollens, danders, molds, or bites from insects like fleas, biting flies and mosquitos.

When a pet suffers from allergies, his or her body responds drastically when exposed to an allergen. While most people experience respiratory signs related to allergies, animals much more commonly experience skin and ear problems.

Common allergy symptoms in pets include:

  •    Scratching, chewing or licking at  the feet, face, ears, armpits, and groin
  •    Redness, red bumps or pimples
  •    Roughened red or black skin
  •    Hair loss
  •    Ear infections
  •    Skin infections

Why Pet Allergies Happen

Allergy in pets, known as Atopic dermatitis, is caused by multiple factors and requires multiple treatments for control. Allergy is known to have a genetic predisposition, so certain breeds are more likely to develop allergy. In predisposed animals, exposure to allergens early in life seems to trigger the disease. They also tend to have an altered skin barrier which makes it easier for many allergens to enter their system through the skin. These animals also tend to have more pathogenic bacteria on their skin, which do two things: first, they cause infection, and secondly, they make the skin more likely to absorb allergens. Exposure to intestinal parasites or fleas is also an allergy trigger and there’s also evidence that predisposed animals who undergo rigorous vaccination protocols are more likely to develop allergy.

Pet allergies can occur at any time in a pet’s life. Often a pet will exhibit allergic symptoms early in life, but they are not recognized as allergy. The symptoms may intensify with each repeated exposure; most pets begin to experience allergy problems at sometime between the ages of 6 months to 6 years of age. Common early signs are ear infections, recurrent skin infections, or feet licking. A common response we hear from pet owners when asked “Does your pet lick or chew their paws?” is “Yes, but he’s always done that”. This is an example of how many signals of allergy are accepted as just normal behavior.

How We Manage Pet Allergies

Treatment of pet allergies can be difficult as there is not one cure for this problem. Instead, we must manage pet allergies with multifactorial therapies.

Common methods of treating pet allergies and its symptoms are:

  •    Administering allergen specific immunotherapy
  •    Bathing pets in a prescription shampoo at least once weekly
  •    Using oral medications such as cyclosporine (Atopica®), antihistamines, or oclacitinib (Apoquel®)
  •    Prescribing a special food
  •    Utilizing flea preventative treatments
  •    Avoidance of allergens when possible

Some types of allergies are fairly easy to manage, while other allergies in pets can be much more difficult to control. For these cases we will often recommend pet allergy testing to allow us to identify the things your pet is allergic to so that we can more accurately target treatment. It is impossible to completely eliminate the things that your pet is allergic to from their environment, so therapy is directed at making the immune system tolerant to the offending agent by using allergen specific immunotherapy. This consists of either allergy shots or oral allergy drops.

When we know what a pet is allergic to allergen immunotherapy will cause his or her own immune system to provide relief. This technique consists of giving the pet small amounts of allergen either by injection or by mouth. These allergens are administered to the patient in a controlled fashion with the goal of encouraging the immune system to build a tolerance to them. This can be a very effective treatment for pets with allergies, together with the other methods noted.

We recommend bathing an allergic pet with medicated shampoos and rinses to help restore the defective skin barrier, along with killing the pathogenic bacteria and removing environmental allergens. As for oral medications, cyclosporine (Atopica®) is an immune system modulator that encourages the sensitive immune cells to become tolerant of allergens. While antihistamines or Apoquel® will not help the immune system become desensitized they are useful in helping to relieve symptoms like itchiness. Antihistamines work by blocking the itch caused by histamine and Apoquel® blocks the nerves that cause itch.

While pet allergies can be frustrating as there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every pet, the Animal Skin and Allergy Clinic is here to help. It is our passion to help provide as much comfort as possible to the allergic pets in our care. If you have a pet who suffers from allergies, we would be happy to help you try to accomplish this as well.