Just like people, pets can experience problems when they ingest, inhale or make skin contact with allergens. Pets can develop allergies to many of the same substances that bother people. A few common allergies that we see in animals are to tree, grass and weed pollen, dust and house mites, dander, feathers, cigarette smoke and food ingredients. Owners interested in learning about whether and how specific allergens affect their pets can visit a veterinary dermatologist for skin testing, similar to what doctors do with humans. Suspected food allergies in pets are diagnosed by feeding the animal a special low-allergen diet for a 12-week period.
Q: Allergies in people seem to be getting worse—or at least we’re becoming more aware of more allergies. What are the signs of allergies in pets?
We see a variety of skin, digestive and respiratory signs. I commonly see skin reactions associated with allergies. Many pets will obsessively lick, particularly their feet and groin areas, or have itchy ears and ear infections. Itchy red, scabbed or inflamed skin can lead to secondary bacterial or yeast infections of the skin and ears. These secondary infections can cause hair loss and worsening of scabbed lesions. Some animals have fewer skin-related signs and may instead react to allergies with vomiting and diarrhea. It’s not uncommon for animals in homes with wood or cigarette smoke to develop bronchitis-like symptoms.
Q: What can owners do to help their pets with allergies?
Prevention is the best medicine. In some cases, such as with cigarette smoke, it’s possible to remove the allergen from the pet’s environment. But in many cases, the allergen is unknown and controlling the symptoms can be highly frustrating. For contact allergies, weekly bathing may help relieve itching by removing pollens or other allergens from the pet’s skin. Some prescription shampoos and rinses are highly effective at hydrating and soothing allergic skin diseases.
Fatty-acids supplements and an antihistamine, such as Benadryl, are effective in a small percentage of animals. This is a nice combination because it is available over the counter, doesn’t cost much and can be quite effective, resulting in significant relief to the pet. For more persistent or severe cases, immune-modulating drugs may be warranted, as well as a referral to a veterinary dermatologist for allergy testing to determine whether allergy injections are needed.
Unfortunately with allergies, there is no single solution for all scenarios. I advise owners that there is no cure for pet allergies. The goal is managing the symptoms to the best of our ability. Often, this involves a lot of trial and error. And sometimes, what works for one allergy season is less effective next season. Allergies are best treated in partnership with your veterinarian to ensure that you’re using appropriate products in appropriate doses.