Allergy season is here not only for us, but also for our allergic pets. As the pollen count rises and we start sneezing, our beloved allergic pets are also suffering, but in a different way. Dogs and cats manifest their allergies through their skin, while humans may sneeze and get runny eyes. As a result, they may get itchy skin, and ear and skin infections. Those of us with allergic pets know it is no fun, and their allergies can be exhausting to manage! And likely if your pet has allergies to the environment you have already paid a visit to your veterinarian this spring for an ear infection or just an itchy pet that obsessively licks and scratches and as a result keeps you up at night.
Pets with allergies to the environment have atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis is an intensely itchy skin condition caused primarily by allergens in the environment, such as molds, house dust mites, house dust, human dander, feathers, and pollens from trees, weeds, and grasses. Besides being very itchy, dogs and cats with atopic dermatitis are also prone to bacterial skin infections (pyoderma) and yeast (Malassezia) infections. However, allergic cats may also have asthma. Certain dog breeds, such as the Boston Terrier, Boxer, Cairn Terrier, Chinese Shar-pei, Dalmatian, English Setter, Golden Retriever, Irish Setter, Labrador Retriever, Lhasa Apso, Miniature Poodle, Miniature Schnauzer, Pug, Scottish Terrier, West Highland White Terrier, and Wire-haired Fox Terrier, are more commonly affected than other breeds.
Atopic dermatitis usually first occurs at 1-3 years of age, although it may develop as late as age 6 or 7. Atopic dermatitis is usually seasonal initially (e.g. from spring to fall), but often develops into a year-round problem. Itching (mainly of the front legs, face, feet and tail area) is the main sign of atopic dermatitis, and ruling out other common itchy skin diseases makes the diagnosis. Chewing, itching and secondary infections damage the skin in pets with atopic dermatitis. Skin and/or blood tests are used to identify the cause of the allergy. Your veterinarian will advise you if either of these tests is necessary.
When the cause is known and avoidance is possible, this is the best means of control. However, keeping your pet away from the cause of the allergy is not always practical and rarely possible, as your pet’s coat is like a dust mop that sweeps up the allergens that cause their allergies. Bathing your pet frequently with a moisturizing product or wiping them frequently with a medicated wipe is often effective in removing the allergens from their coat.
Bathing and wiping them down also offers immediate anti-itch relief and treats infections if needed, and is a very important part of maintaining comfort for our allergic animals. This is called topical therapy and consists of the use of sprays, shampoos and flushes, etc. Shampoo’s containing steroids, oatmeal, essential fatty acids, lidocaine and pramoxime all have anti-itch/soothing effects. There are many medicated shampoos, sprays, flushes and wipes available that can be used to treat concurrent infections as well. Acetic/boric acid, salicylic acid, chlorhexidene, benzoyl peroxide and ethyl lactate are antibacterial ingredients, and products containing these ingredients may be used to treat bacterial skin infections. Chlorhexidene, ketoconazole, miconazole, acetic/boric acid and lime sulfur are anti-fungal ingredients, and products containing these ingredients may be used to treat fungal (yeast) skin infections, such as Malassezia. Seek guidance from your vet to determine which products are best for your pet.
Treatment with oral steroids for itchiness and other oral medications to treat concurrent underlying infections is often needed to control these allergies. However, steroids become less effective over time and may cause undesirable side effects. Anti-histamines, such as Benadryl, may also be effective in reducing their itchiness but can cause sedation. Topical therapy is almost always needed in conjunction with these medications.
Medications that reduce the immune system’s response to allergens (immunomodulating medications) are also available. Atopica, which is cyclosporine, is an example of this type of medication. However, these medications may cause undesirable effects over time as well.
Desensitizing injections (allergy shots) may help if avoidance or drug therapy is ineffective. Desensitization injections, however, are not always effective, may take a long time to start working and continued treatment is usually necessary.
Fatty acids are also an important part of control as well. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, such as the inflammation that occurs in the skin with allergies. Be sure to use an omega-3 fatty acid supplement derived from fish oil.
Our goal during this time of year is to keep our pets comfortable, itch and skin infection free! Each pet’s allergy management will need to be tailored depending on their individual allergies and environment.
Hope this season is comfortable for you and your allergic pets!!
Jessica Melman, VMD
Director of Veterinary & Technical Services