We all know people whose allergies flare up in the presence of cats or dogs, but did you know that animals suffer from allergies of their own? Veterinarians say that the number of cats and dogs with allergies has grown to epidemic proportions in recent years. Experts suggest that one out of seven dogs and nearly as many cats display allergy symptoms. Certain breeds of dogs, in fact, have become so allergy-prone that nearly half of them suffer from a hypersensitivity to something they touch, inhale, or ingest.
The good news about allergies is that newer, gentler treatments are beginning to show results for many cats and dogs. The bad news is you may have to go to a specialist to learn about them, and treatments for severe allergies can cost thousands of dollars. Worst of all, for some pets nothing seems to work.
“An allergy can be very debilitating for a cat or dog,” says Michele Rosenbaum, V.M.D., a veterinary dermatologist at the Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology. Some people don’t think of an allergy as serious, but a pet that is constantly scratching and miserable – the hallmark of pet allergies – often becomes irritable, snappish, and generally not much fun to be around. Animals often don’t sneeze or wheeze as allergic humans do. Their reaction shows up on what is sometimes called “the third lung” – that is, the skin. Skin and lungs are the body’s first lines of defense against invaders from the outside world, be they viruses, bacteria, or allergens. In natural medicine circles, an allergic reaction is generally seen as the body’s desperate effort to rid itself of something toxic. Some cats and dogs have more trouble making peace with substances in their food or environment. These are the poor pets we call allergic.
HEREDITY CLEARLY PLAYS A PART IN ALLERGIES. Labradors, golden retrievers, shar-peis, and Lhasa apsos are particularly – and increasingly – allergy-prone, says Dr. Rosenbaum, adding that breeders who breed only for looks may come up with more allergy-prone pets. (One more reason to choose a breeder carefully if you’re picking a purebred pet!) Allergies often don’t show up until an animal is two or three years old, and they tend to get worse as an animal ages. So, to learn if a potential pet may have inherited allergic tendencies, be sure to check out a breeder’s track record in addition to the health of the pup or kitten you have in mind.
PET ALLERGIES FALL INTO THREE CATEGORIES: those caused by fleas, by environmental allergens like dust mites and molds, or by foods. Pets with allergies often suffer from more than one of these.
Allergies to fleas, or, to be precise, to a protein found in flea saliva, are most common. The itching connected with this allergy will show up wherever fleas hang out: behind the ears, under the legs, on the belly. And it will occur during flea season -which is year-round in some Southern climates.
Dust mites, grasses, and molds top the list of environmental, or atopic, allergies, which can involve any of the allergens humans react to. Trees, insects, and certain weeds are also common offenders. Animals can react to these substances when they touch or inhale them. Contact allergies show up most often on the legs, feet, or stomach. Reactions to airborne allergens tend to show up first on the head, ears, or stomach.
Atopic allergy symptoms may show up seasonally. That’s one giveaway when diagnosing them. A skin test – similar to that used to diagnose allergies in humans – can be performed by a veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist to identify the exact culprit. The animal must be lightly sedated to accomplish this, as it involves injecting 60 different allergens just under the skin on the animal’s side. The veterinarian examines the swelling around each injection to see which ones cause reactions. The catch is that many common allergens are nearly impossible to avoid.
Food allergies are the most manageable allergies, but controlling them can be time-consuming at first. Vomiting may accompany itching with allergies to things eaten. These symptoms may come and go, but usually not in a seasonal pattern. Unfortunately, there is as yet no simple test for determining food allergies.
Finding the cause of a food allergy takes some sleuthing. Owners should start with an elimination diet and then add ingredients back into their pets’ diet one by one to see which elicit an allergic reaction.
For an animal whose symptoms improve with the introduction of the new diet, foods are gradually added – one at a time every week or so – since a reaction often shows up two or three days after the allergen is eaten. This whole detection process can take several months, but it often results in a diet a pet can eat without problems.
The main treatments for animal allergies in years past were corticosteroids to control itching and antibiotics to control secondary infections caused by scratching. Both of these are still sometimes prescribed, but, according to Dr. Rosenbaum, their long-term use – especially steroids – is risky.
Veterinarians now have safer options. For symptomatic relief, many recommend bathing with shampoos containing oatmeal or Pramoxine. In the case of flea or food allergies, the long-term approach is to eliminate the allergen through aggressive flea control or a strict diet. For atopic allergies, hyposensitization treatment can reduce an animal’s reaction to specific irritants once identified. The pet owner injects these weekly at first, then, later, once every few weeks for up to 18 months. Not every veterinarian is prepared to offer such treatment – you may need one who specializes in allergies or dermatology. To locate an animal and veterinary dermatologist and allergy specialist, inquire at your local veterinary association.
Alternative therapies are also showing promise. Dr. Rosenbaum says some pets that weren’t helped by anything else improved with acupuncture. With so many options available, it seems a shame to let animal companions continue to suffer without treatment.