Head shaking, ear digging, paw licking, skin gnawing, and nonstop scratching... Does this describe your pet? If so, your pet could be showing the symptoms of an allergy, and that allergy could be you!
It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of all skin problems in dogs are caused by allergies. Certain breeds of dogs are genetically more prone to allergies including Golden Retrievers, Labs, Shar-Peis, Beagles, Bulldogs, Cocker Spaniels, Westies, Pugs, and Boxers. Cats, too, can suffer from the same types of allergies seen in dogs. Allergies generally begin in younger pets between 1 and 4 years of age.
Symptoms of Allergies in Pets
- Reddened skin
- Skin lesions (raised bumps, raw areas, etc.)
- Ear infections
- Paw licking/chewing
- Fur loss
- Hot spots
- Runny, red eyes
If your pet is exhibiting any of the symptoms above, a thorough exam should be performed to determine if there is an underlying allergy present. The skin will be examined for infections with bacteria and yeast. We will also look for fleas or signs of a flea infestation. If suspected, skin scrapes and fungal cultures may be performed to look for ringworm and skin mites, such as Scabies (very rare) or Demodex, which cause similar symptoms as allergies. The ears will be examined well to look for infection. If warranted, an ear cytology will be performed to determine if there is an overgrowth of bacteria or yeast in the ears.
We will also look for internal diseases which could account for the symptoms seen. For example, hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone) can cause a poor skin coat, recurrent ear infections, and skin infections. Cushings Disease (overproduction of steroids in the body) causes hair loss, skin infections, and ear infections. Blood testing is performed to diagnose these diseases.
Specific allergy testing can be performed when atopy is highly suspected. Blood samples can be sent to a lab or an intradermal skin test (most reliable) can be performed by a dermatologist through referral to a specialty hospital. A food trial is usually tried for 10-12 weeks prior to skin testing to rule out a food allergy.
We will discuss with you the best plan for your pet to determine the cause of the symptoms. Many times the history of the problem can help greatly in determining the type of allergy. For example, symptoms that occur only in the fall indicate a seasonal allergy and symptoms that occur throughout the year indicate a food allergy or atopy.
Types of Allergies
- Flea allergy: Some pets are so sensitive to flea bites that they are described as having a flea allergy. This allergy is easy to control by keeping pets on year around flea preventatives.
- Seasonal allergy: Symptoms occur only when pollen levels are high from grasses, trees, and molds in the environment. Some pets are more sensitive in the spring while others react in the summer or fall.
- Food allergy: Symptoms occur all year long and commonly seen in dogs that lick their feet excessively and have recurrent ear infections. Some pets also have intestinal signs such as vomiting and diarrhea. The most common foods that pets are allergic to are chicken, beef, turkey, and pork. Food allergies usually occur in pets who have been on the same food for years and suddenly develop an allergy to the protein source in that food.
- Atopy: These pets are "hyperallergic" and have multiple allergies. Their symptoms last all year long and can become very difficult to manage. A few of the causes include dust mites, food, grass, pollen, trees, molds, and human dander. So, yes, it is possible that your pet is allergic to you.
- Contact allergy: This is a less commonly seen allergy caused by shampoos, laundry detergents, carpets/rugs, plastic bowls, household cleaners, etc.
On the day of the initial evaluation, your pet will be sent home with medications to provide comfort and clear up infections. For the very itchy pet, an injectable steroid may be necessary to provide the best relief. Some pets may need antihistamines, medicated baths, ear medications, or antibiotics. The E-collar, also known as "the cone of shame," may be used to keep your pet from further traumatizing its skin.
Further treatment depends upon the allergy.
- Flea allergies are controlled with good quality flea preventatives used monthly year around.
- Seasonal allergies are treated when they occur each year with antihistamines and steroids as needed. Baths can also help greatly to wash off the pollens causing the skin to react.
- Food allergies are treated with a prescription novel protein or hydrolyzed protein diet such as fish, venison, or rabbit foods. We will recommend the best diet depending on your pet's needs.
- Atopy usually requires either allergy vaccines given at home or Cyclosporine (an immunosuppressant drug) or a combination of the two in order to control symptoms.
- Contact allergies are controlled by determining the caustic agent and switching to a new product. Switching to a stainless steel or ceramic bowl for food and water will prevent chin and lip acne.
Unfortunately, many allergies are not curable and require life-long treatment. It can be time-consuming, expensive, and frustrating to deal with allergies. Thankfully, there are many ways in which allergies can be managed well and your pet kept itch-free for long periods of time. New medications are being developed often to combat this problem. We will keep up-to-date on the newest developments in allergy treatments. We will be happy to assess your itchy dog or cat and develop a plan of action for both of you that will bring the best results. We all want your pet to spend more time playing, chasing squirrels, and spending time with you rather than sitting in a corner scratching all day!
Dr. Jennifer Sawyer is an associate veterinarian at Armadale Animal Hospital. A native of Raleigh, Dr. Sawyer has a special interest in veterinary neurology and opthalmology.