How to Tell if Your Pet Has Allergies

Many people have either experienced or know someone with allergies. When pollen is high in the air such as in spring or fall, people frequently have symptoms of sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose or coughing. Although many people have heard about allergies in pets, many don’t know what that looks like.

Dogs and cats primarily respond to allergies by having itchy skin. This makes sense when it comes to environmental allergies where our furkids are walking in the grass or sitting in environments where dust mites may live. What can seem mysterious is how foods can cause skin to itch in dogs and cats.

First things first: What causes allergies? Generally, animals first have to have some sort of genetic predisposition to having allergies. Then, they come in contact with something that normally shouldn’t cause a reaction (like dust or a food protein particle) and their immune system makes memory cells against it. Then, if they get exposed to this again, or over time, they can build an immune response to this from those memory cells they stored. These memory cells make an antibody that activates other immune cells to cause itchy skin. So, although nothing may have changed in the pet’s environment or diet, it’s a chronic or repeat exposure that causes an allergic reaction.

So where does this itching happen? It could happen in their ears, around their eyes, around their mouth, on their paws and legs, the underbelly, and sometimes around their anal region. How does itching look like in animals? Most people picture the scratching with their back feet. However, some animals pull their fur (such as cats), and some dogs constantly lick with that really annoying sound between their toes. More interestingly, some animals have itchy ears or recurring ear infections.

How do we know what type of allergy it is? Usually allergies are broken up into either a food allergy or inhalant allergy which is also known as a condition called atopy. Generally, testing is needed to differentiate between the two.

Let’s start with food allergies. These are usually year-round as our furkids usually are exposed to similar food allergens throughout the year. Blood testing is NOT an accurate way to diagnose this condition. The most effective way is to first try to remove all potential allergens in the diet, a so-called elimination diet. This means no treats or people food. It’s best to do this for a minimum of eight to ten weeks. This is best done with guidance from your veterinarian to ensure that your pet meets its nutritional needs. Ideally, there should be a lessening of itching. Then, your pet may be challenged with potential allergens, one at a time, to see if they have a response. Once that’s found, they can then have a diet without that allergen and hopefully have a better quality of life. So, how much does it take to cause an allergic response? As little as one or two corn chips in an allergic dog can cause itchiness – so, if your furkid is on an elimination diet – no treats except hypoallergenic treats prescribed by your vet.

What about environmental allergens/atopy? These can be seasonal if it’s to pollens given off seasonally (like ragweed or tree pollens). However, they can be year-round if your furkid is in an environment where pollens are year-round like tropical regions or if they have allergies to dust. Usually, having seasonal allergies, or not responding to a food elimination trial, or responding to allergy medication are used to diagnose atopy. To find out what, specifically, your furkid is allergic to, further testing is recommended. The gold standard of testing is skin testing where small amounts of allergens are injected under the skin and evaluated for how much swelling they cause. This can be done at a Veterinary Dermatologist’s office. You can find one here: Blood testing is also appropriate for atopy.

What do you do if your furkid has atopy? The first thing to know is that you will be treating this likely for the rest of your pet’s life. Treatments, ideally, will decrease the signs of allergies so that they are manageable and allow a good quality of life. They usually aren’t 100 percent and can take multiple different treatments to find the right combination. Your veterinarian may prescribe de-sensitizing injections which slowly allow the immune system to decrease its response to allergens. Treatments that have few side effects include antihistamines, JAK inhibitors, and medicated shampoos. Others include glucocorticoids (like prednisone or prednisolone) can have side effects if used long term, so consult with your veterinarian.

Allergies are life-long, but manageable if you have a good plan. Work with your veterinarian to find a treatment plan that’s right for you and your furkid.

Key Words:

Allergy: a genetic predisposition to an allergic response to normally benign substances

Allergen: substance that causes allergies

Atopy: allergic response to environmental allergens (not a food allergy) such as pollens or dust

Elimination diet: diet that restricts probable food allergens from a patient’s diet

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