Pet Allergies – They Have Them Too.
By: Sarah Liu
As many volunteers in a shelter environment can attest, one of the saddest reasons for owner surrender is lack of information on how to deal with a pet’s allergies. While most people are familiar with the occurrence of pet allergies in humans, comparatively few know how to identify or combat substances poorly tolerated by their animal companions. While a visit with your family veterinarian should always be the first course of action, this article provides a few tips for identifying potential allergens in cats and dogs, and minimizing their impact on your companion’s health and comfort.
So what are they? Allergies are hypersensitive immune responses to common substances entering or contacting the body. While allergens may be harmless to most members of a common household, they can cause an extreme reaction in individuals with a specific low tolerance. Essentially, if an individual is allergic, the immune system reacts as if the substance was harmful, and tries to destroy it. The release of histamines during this process causes local inflammation, commonly seen as itching, redness, and swelling.
Like young children, animals lack the ability to articulate the causes of their discomfort. Consequently, it’s up to pet parents to be sensitive to a companion’s behavior, and quickly recognize signs of distress. Common signs of allergies in both cats and dogs include sneezing, wheezing, itchy skin and increased scratching or scabs, itchy and/or runny eyes, vomiting, diarrhea, snoring due to inflamed throat, chewing of paws, and swollen paws. In cats, watch for chin acne from contact with plastic bowls. In dogs, be aware of secondary bacterial or yeast infections that can cause hair loss, scabs, or crusting on the skin.
Allergies may appear at any time in an animal’s life, but are most commonly seen after the first one to three years. Notably, while most cat breeds appear equally susceptible to allergic reaction, certain dog breeds are more predisposed. These include golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, shar-peis, beagles, bulldogs, English and Irish setters, terriers, cocker spaniels, dachshunds, Dalmatians, miniature schnauzers, Lhasa Apso, pugs, and boxers.
Identifying the allergens that cause your companion’s discomfort is often the hardest part. There are three common categories:
- Ingestion: food, treats, liquids, medications, vitamins, additives, preservatives, or dyes;
- Inhalation: cigarette smoke, pollens, mold spores, feathers, perfumes, cleaners, or dander; and
- Skin Contact: fleas, flea control products, shampoos, cleaning products, fabrics, rubber or plastic materials.
While it’s rarely easy to determine a specific allergen, you can often narrow it down to one of the categories above. In the process, pay attention to your pet’s behavior and collect data: is she scratching after she sleeps on freshly washed bedding? Is she vomiting after eating a certain type of canned food? Are his eyes watery after early morning walks? Make a detailed list of observations and try removing and replacing potential culprits in your pet’s environment.
If you are unable to relieve your pet’s symptoms, and you haven’t consulted a vet yet, make an appointment. Discuss your observations. Your vet will take a complete history and conduct a physical exam. If he or she cannot determine the source of your pet’s reaction, additional diagnostics may be recommended, or referrals to a pet allergist or dermatologist.
Then what? Well, while there are no cures for allergies in cats or dogs, there are ways to prevent exposure and relieve uncomfortable symptoms.
Naturally, the best way to treat allergies is to remove the offending substance. Avoiding ingestible allergens will probably involve a preliminary diet of elimination, and strict adherence to a no-treat policy. Once the offending ingredient is identified, your vet or specialty pet store can provide information on non-allergenic foods suitable for your pet’s comfort and health. Home cooked meals may be an option, but should be prepared with guidance, in order to maintain proper nutrient balance. Where medications, supplements, and vitamins are concerned, it is imperative to seek veterinary guidance in cases of negative reaction.
When it comes to inhalation, elimination may be more challenging. Closing windows, running air filters, and regular dusting/vacuuming will reduce the amount of dust, mold spores, and pollens your pet breathes. Pets should not be kept in dusty or damp garages, basements, laundry rooms, or barns. Avoid walks in the early morning, or late evening, when pollen counts are highest. If you smoke, remember your pet is smoking too. Studies have shown that second and third hand smoke, (smoke remaining on skin, fur, clothing, and furniture), increases the risk of malignant lymphoma in cats almost 2 1/2 times over cats in smoke free environments. Likewise, studies suggest a link between oral cancer in cats and environmental tobacco smoke, as the cat’s mouth tissues are damaged by grooming tobacco smoke off the fur.
With skin contact, flea bites are the most common cause of pet allergies. Start and maintain a flea control program for all your pets. Clean bedding once a week, and check your pet’s fur regularly. Avoid detergents and cleaning products with strong perfumes, and use cotton fabrics instead of wool. With dogs, weekly bathing may prevent or relieve allergic itching, but should be discussed with your veterinarian or professional groomer. For cats with chin acne, ditch the plastic bowl. As a general rule, feed your pets from metal or ceramic bowls only. Don’t use cedar chips in pet beds, or cedar wood in or for dog houses. Limit time on treated wood decks.
When prevention isn’t enough, your vet may recommend medications to treat or control allergic reactions. Like humans, antihistamines or injections may be used, as well as special shampoos and immune modulating medications. In severe situations, cortisone may be used. Follow your veterinarian’s advice, and never administer medications without professional direction.
Early detection and prevention are the optimal course in dealing with pet allergies. Veterinary expenses and special foods may seem daunting at first, but proper care and maintenance of your pet’s health and comfort will reduce long term stress and avert potential tragedy. Discuss concerns with your vet, and ask for suggestions in easing lifestyle changes. Remember, pets are creatures of habit, and a change in routine will be just as stressful for them. Patience and perseverance are golden, and a lifetime of joy with a healthy pet is priceless.