Seasonal environmental allergies commonly cause hay fever in people, but pets express allergies differently—with itchy skin, chronic infections, and inflammation. Seasonal allergens include pollens, grasses, and molds, while other allergens, such as food, insects, and other pets, can cause year-round issues. Because most allergic pets have multiple triggers, and allergies can change or worsen as pets age, making a diagnosis and determining treatment can be tricky. The team at Parker Center Animal Clinic wants to help your itchy pet by helping you identify possible allergies, and explaining more about their long-term management.
Pet allergy overview
Allergies result from an overactive immune system that mistakenly attacks benign substances as foreign invaders, causing inflammation when pets contact, inhale, or eat the offending allergen. In pets, the inflammation targets the skin, as well as the ears, anal glands, and eyes, and sometimes the gut lining. Pet allergy types fall into three major categories—flea, environmental, and food—and most pets have more than one allergen or allergy type. All allergies cause similar signs, including:
- Itching, which leads to scratching, licking, and chewing
- Chronic or recurrent skin and ear infections
- Chronic anal gland inflammation
- Hair loss
- Skin redness, thickening, or dark pigmentation
- Vomiting or diarrhea
Pet flea allergies
Many pets are allergic to flea bites, which cause intense itching, hair loss, and inflammation in a characteristic pattern at the tail base. Some pets diagnosed with flea allergies have an active flea infestation, while others have been bitten only once or twice. No matter the extent, the flea allergy treatment mainstay is flea control, which requires a multimodal approach. The affected pet, and all other household pets, should be treated monthly with a topical or oral flea prevention product, and the environment must be cleaned and vacuumed regularly to remove immature fleas. Despite appropriate flea control, some pets will have flare-ups from rogue flea bites and require medications. All pets with allergies, regardless of type, should remain on appropriate flea prevention year-round.
Pet environmental allergies
The most common pet allergy causes are environmental, which may include outdoor allergens (e.g., trees, grasses, pollens) and indoor allergens (e.g., molds, dust mites, other pets). Pets with outdoor, but no indoor, allergens typically experience issues only seasonally, but those with indoor triggers will have year-round problems. Our veterinary team will perform blood or skin testing, which can accurately identify your pet’s environmental allergens, and use the results to customize an immunotherapy treatment similar to allergy shots in humans. However, this approach is effective for only two-thirds of pets, and results can take up to a year, so tends to be used for severely affected young pets with a lifetime of itching ahead. Other treatments, used alternatively, or in conjunction with immunotherapy, include:
- Steroids and immune modulators
- Topical ear medications
- Medicated shampoos
Pet food allergies
Food allergies are the least common in pets. In people, food allergies typically cause immediate, severe reactions, but in pets, the reaction is delayed and chronic, causing the usual skin problems, and sometimes gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting or diarrhea. Food allergies and indoor environmental allergies cause year-round signs, so determining the cause of your pet’s problem is key to successful treatment. Pets most commonly are allergic to dietary proteins, such as chicken, beef, egg, or fish. Unfortunately, food allergies cannot be diagnosed by blood or skin testing, because measuring the delayed reaction is more difficult. Beware of saliva, hair, or blood tests marketed for food allergy diagnosis, as several studies have shown they are inaccurate.
An elimination diet trial, which involves feeding a novel or hydrolyzed protein, limited-ingredient food to your pet for at least eight weeks, provides the only accurate food allergy diagnosis. If your pet’s signs resolve while they are on the limited diet, they are allergic to an ingredient in their previous diet, and can be challenged with individual ingredients to identify the culprit. Some pet owners choose to keep their severely allergic pet on the limited diet that improved their problems and avoid any re-challenge.
Pet allergy management
Allergic pets need special care to manage their chronic issues. Your veterinarian’s treatment plan is the mainstay of your pet’s therapy, but you can take other steps, including:
- Flea control — Keep allergic pets on veterinary-approved flea medications year-round.
- Grooming — Regular grooming is crucial for pets with skin problems. Keep their hair mat-free and clipped short for improved air flow, and clean ears and skin folds regularly. Your veterinarian can recommend a shampoo and ear cleanser that will reduce inflammation and infection.
- Wipe feet — If your pet has grass or pollen allergies, wipe their feet to remove allergens after being outdoors. Those with fluffy or long fur may also benefit from a body wipe-down.
- Avoid triggers — This is easier said than done, but avoid going outdoors on poor air quality days, eliminate dust mites in the house, and avoid known food triggers, whenever possible.
- Communicate — Stay on top of flare-ups, and notify your veterinarian right away about any new issues.
Allergies can be a chronic source of torment for your itchy pet, but appropriate treatment can manage the issue. If you suspect your pet has allergies, or you’ve noticed any new skin or ear problems, call us, and schedule a visit with your Parker Center Animal Clinic team.