Itchy Pets: When Pollen is to Blame

One of the most common conditions affecting our pets goes by a name that almost no one has ever heard of – atopy (also called atopic dermatitis). Many pet owners have heard of common animal diseases like parvo, distemper or rabies, but the far more common atopy seems to have escaped our notice.

Atopy is an allergy to inhaled pollens – similar to hay fever in people. It is often seasonal and first shows up in spring or summer, but in many cases it can become year-round later in life. The pollen from plants is inhaled into the lungs, where the immune system notices it and (for reasons science poorly understands) recognizes the harmless proteins as a potential threat and activates the immune system. It is essentially your pet’s immune system mistakenly trying to protect your pet from something that presents no danger.

The signs and symptoms of atopy in dogs and cats include:

  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Itchy skin anywhere on the body
  • Chewing at the feet
  •  Loss of hair

Unlike our limited diagnostic options for food allergy in pets, blood tests for inhaled allergens can be of help to diagnose just what your pet is allergic to. The list of potential bad guys goes on and on, but includes dust mites, ragweed pollen – even human skin! Yes, you read that right – your dog or cat can actually be allergic to you!

Your trusted family veterinarian can help you with the diagnosis, or may talk to you about visiting a veterinary allergist or dermatologist.

How to Help

Managing inhaled allergies and decreasing the itch is not a simple process. In most cases, we can make pets more comfortable and decrease the itch, but you can’t typically cure an allergy. Just like people with hay fever find relief with medications or allergy shots, we use these tools to help our pets who suffer from allergies, too.

Steroids (like prednisone or dexamethasone) are potent hormone medications that are sometimes prescribed to decrease the itch in very itchy pets. They are one of the most commonly prescribed medications for pets. Steroids are very effective at combating the itch, but they can have a host of side effects if used improperly. They are a great tool to use for dogs and cats that are miserable from itching, but their use must be carefully monitored and only used when necessary to avoid problems like diabetes, delayed healing and a host of other potentially serious problems.  Another potential problem with steroids is that they work too well – owners may demand them for their itchy pets, not realizing that if used in too high a dose or for too long, they can actually cause harm.

For this reason, we often discuss ‘allergy shots’ (hyposensitization therapy) to help decrease the itch. This is a long, slow and expensive process that does not always work – it’s no wonder that pet owners like the seeming miracle of a steroid injection. Allergy injections are made out of the very same things that the blood tests tell us an individual is allergic to. Tiny amounts of these substances are injected on a daily basis to try and convince the immune system to chill out and not recognize these harmless things as a threat.

Antihistamines are sometimes prescribed for pets with atopy, in addition to the treatments outlined above. They are very safe and very inexpensive, but only work in a small fraction of pets. They should be tried, though, as they might work and they also may help other medications work better.

Your veterinarian may also recommend other medications or products for your allergic pet – some shampoos can help soothe skin, and products like fatty acid supplements work with the pet’s body to reduce inflammation and itching.

Remember, again, that animals can have many allergies at the same time.  It is very common for an animal with atopy to also be allergic to flea bites or certain foods.  Allergies “add” to each other – the more things the pet is allergic to, the worse the itch.  Since new technology and topical flea and tick control products like SENTRY Fiproguard have made flea control safe and convenient, it is especially important (and no longer difficult) to ensure fleas are not complicating a pet’s itching problem. For this reason, great flea control is very important for any itchy pet – regardless of cause.

Allergies are not easy to manage, and can’t be cured. But with a little patience and understanding, vigilance when it comes to eliminating obvious sources of itch such as fleas, and the care of your trusted family veterinarian, we can help make pets more comfortable.

Photo credit: From flickr by Chatblanc1

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