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Animals More Prone To Allergies Than You’d Think

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.

Pets Offer True Security To Owners

At this time of year there are nights when the air is still and there’s nothing more peaceful than a quiet stroll in the moonlight – especially if you’re lucky enough to have a dog to accompany you. I find that going for a walk after dark is a very different experience with a dog by my side. For one thing, I relax and breathe more deeply than when I’m alone, which allows me to appreciate the fragrance of new-mown grass or whatever is blooming. Without an animal companion, I find myself walking with my arms crossed and my antennae on full alert. With a dog – whose “antennae,” I’m sure, are a hundred times more sensitive than mine – my arms swing freely and I take in whatever scents and sounds the summer breeze carries my way.

It doesn’t really matter if I’m walking down a country road or on a city street. And it doesn’t really matter if the dog I’m walking is a German shepherd or a poodle. In fact, when we had no dog in our own household, I used to “borrow” two poodles from a friend when the full moon gave me wanderlust. Something about the dogs’ presence just made me feel more secure on my walk.

Security is just one of the many gifts we get from our generous canine companions. For many people, it ranks right up there with their gifts of love, loyalty, comfort, and companionship. In fact, security has become one of the reasons new dog owners give for wanting a dog. Whether they come along to escort us on walks or stay behind to guard the house, dogs add to our peace of mind in a way that dead bolts and mace spray can’t these days.

So how do you train a dog to be a watchdog? The beauty of it is that you don’t have to. A dog’s territorial instinct and pack loyalty make it a natural at protecting both people and property. Dogs’ guarding abilities are probably the reason they were first domesticated some 10 thousand years ago.

When dogs became privileged members of the human “pack,” they became finely tuned to our whereabouts and state of being. They learned to register the subtle warning signs that people display when in distress or possible danger.

Dogs’ territorial instincts also lead them to patrol and protect whatever area they identify as theirs. They possess keen senses of hearing and smell along with a sharp ability to catalogue sounds and scents. They let us know with a bark when they register a whisper or whiff of anything unfamiliar in their territory. A friend of mine who lives alone says that before she had a dog, a noise in the night might leave her awake and nervous for hours. Now she feels more secure. “When my dog is calm I know not to worry,” she explains. “I know he’ll go investigate anything unusual.”

Some dogs perform better than others at both patrolling and warning. Older dogs, for instance, may not respond as early or as often as younger ones: As they age, many dogs suffer hearing loss, and they may also become sound sleepers that are hard to rouse from their rest. Dogs we describe as “high-strung” may respond to more than we care to know about, while mellower dogs may miss things. And certain breeds tend to define their borders in different ways than others. Some retrievers, for instance, will zealously guard a small area while remaining oblivious to activity beyond it. Collies and Dobermans, on the other hand, are famous for regularly patrolling the perimeter of “their” property. Behavioral differences are also a factor. Training a dog not to bark (admittedly not an easy task, depending on the breed) can keep a high-strung dog from voicing its distress when less than legitimate, but may also prevent it from warning you of real danger.

How a dog looks and sounds certainly makes a difference. Yet, though a large dog with a loud bark is more off-putting than a wee pup with a high-pitched yelp, police say that even a small dog can discourage would-be intruders.

The day after someone tried to break into her home, a neighbor of mine came home with a dog. The police officer investigating the crime recommended it. “He told me a barking dog was the best protection I could get,” she said. Domino turned out to be a friendly Labrador-shepherd mix. So gentle was Domino that if an intruder offered him a hand, my neighbor suspected, the dog would probably wag his tail and lick the stranger’s hand.

But Domino possessed two key qualities: He was a light sleeper and a loud barker. Sometimes all it takes to discourage a burglar, law enforcement officials say, is the sound of barking. Many a dog’s bark is truly worse than its bite – but few thieves want to test the theory. The sound alone will dampen the spirits of most burglars and send them looking for easier pickings elsewhere.

It’s not simply the fear of being bitten that stops intruders from breaking into a house protected by a pooch, one police officer explained. To escape detection, prowlers depend on the cover of silence and want to avoid the sudden attention a barking dog may bring. Thieves have no way of anticipating who might respond to the barking by turning on a light, sounding an alarm, or calling the authorities.

That’s why it doesn’t take an attack dog to secure your home. A watchdog doesn’t have to be vicious or trained to “sic ‘em.” The potential villain’s fear of being stormed by your canine companion is threat enough. In fact, trained guard dogs make problematic pets. An animal trainer once told me that having a trained attack dog is like keeping a loaded gun around the house – there’s always a chance it could “go off” accidentally. Training a dog to cause injury is contradictory to nearly everything else that we train companion animals to do.

That’s why, as good as dogs are at boosting our sense of security, security alone is not reason enough to keep one. An electronic alarm system is certainly easier, and probably cheaper, in the long run. Feeding, exercising, cleaning up after, and providing regular veterinary care for a dog are much larger commitments than simply paying bills and pushing buttons. Companionship is probably the only reward that can justify the time and energy it takes to tend a dog through its entire life. The sense of security a dog provides is just one more of the many rewards pets offer us.

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A Bloodbank For Hounds?

As an intravenous needle slides into Rowdy’s jugular vein and begins to draw blood, W. Jean Dodds, D.V.M., hugs him tightly and whispers a few soothing words. But if the happy-go-lucky grey-hound is fazed by the four-minute procedure, he doesn’t show it. “He knows a treat is coming,” says Dodds, laughing. And judging by the frantic action of his tail as he scares down the canine cookie, his reward was well worth the donation.

Rowdy is one of about 135 greyhounds–all former racing dogs,–living at Hemopet blood bank in Irvine, CA, while donating blood to help sick canines. “This is more or less a Red Cross for dogs,” explains Dodds, who opened Hemopet in 1991. Thanks to her initiative, countless canines in need of hip replacement, bypass surgery, and other lifesaving procedures can count on healthy, compatible blood transfusions. Shipments are sent out daily around the United States and as far away as Japan.

Dodds, 57, recalls being struck with the idea for Hemopet: “It dawned on me: Dogs have accidents and illnesses the same way people do, and to be properly treated, they also need a safe supply of blood.” Within five years, armed with $250,000 from grants, individual donations, and money Dodds earned from lecturing, Hemopet became a reality. It’s now one of four animal blood banks in the United States, and the only one that’s nonprofit.

But Dodds’s mission goes beyond safe transfusions. The adoption branch of Hemopet, called Pet Life-Line, finds loving homes for greyhound donors who would otherwise have been euthanized after their racing days were over. “Once they can no longer win, they’re out of luck,” Dodds explains. “It’s tragic.”

She’s screened about 1,200 greyhounds to date. Those with an untainted, universal blood type–about 20 percent–join Hemopet; the rest are placed with adoptive families. Doggie donors live at Hemopet for about a year and a half before they, too, are adopted.

Dodds, a lifelong animal lover (“I signed up for veterinary school the second I could”), doesn’t run the bank Alone–there are 23 employees and 50 volunteers on hand to help. Besides feeding, grooming, and walking the dogs, the Hemopet crew provides companionship. “We teach the dogs that it’s okay to cut loose and play,” says senior volunteer Toni Bryant. “We keep ‘em hoppin’.” Dodds’s husband, patent attorney and fellow pooch lover Charles Berman, helps out too.

Dodds encourages families hoping to adopt to drop by on several occasions for some pet bonding time. “But,” she explains, “we’re a little choosy.” She’s not kidding. Candidates must own their own home for have written proof that their landlord allows pets, have a fenced-in yard, complete a five-page application, and even present letters of recommendation. One recent applicant–a former police officer–didn’t cut it. “He wanted a macho clog. I told him, ‘A greyhound’s too soft and gentle for you.’ He was fuming, but we sent him away.”

Despite such high standards, just about every one of the dogs eventually finds a home-even the “ugly muglies.” That’s what Dodds lovingly calls the slightly homely canines. And if it should happen that there’s a pooch no one wants? “Then he has a home with us for life,” she says.

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