Just as with people, allergies are not uncommon in our pets and any cat or dog can develop allergies at any time during their lives. However, some dog breeds are more predisposed than others; for example: Jack Russells, Staffies, Westies, Retrievers, Bulldogs etc.
Allergies happen when the immune system recognises what are usually harmless substances such as plants and foods (allergens) as threatening or dangerous. The immune system reacts to the allergen causing various symptoms. The most common symptoms to look out for are: itchy, red, moist or scabbed skin; itchy ears, backs and bases of tails, paws and eyes; increased scratching and licking; hotspots; watery, red eyes; sneezing and even at times vomiting and diarrhoea.
WHEN DO ALLERGIES OCCUR?
Allergies can occur at any time of the year and at any pet age. We do, however, see a peak in allergic symptoms during seasonal changes such as spring, when new grasses, leaves and flowers are coming out, and autumn, when these grasses are seeding and leaves are shedding.
WHAT ARE DOGS AND CATS ALLERGIC TO?
There are many different allergens with some of the more common ones being:
- Flea saliva (it only takes one flea to cause an allergic reaction, so it’s not always easy to spot the odd fl ea. If in doubt, treat for fleas)
- A variety of grasses, plants, pollens, moulds
- Dust and house dust mites
- Various foods. The vast majority of food allergies are due to the protein source in the diet.
It’s important to note that pets can be allergic to more than one thing and often allergies progress with age to include multiple allergens.
I strongly suggest to all pet owners who suspect that their pets have allergies, to keep a note on their calendars of exactly when they saw the symptoms. Over time, a pattern often emerges that helps identify the possible causes.
The best way to treat an allergy is to avoid the offending allergen but getting to the bottom of the cause can be a lengthy process. The good news is that, with the help of your vet and a clear systematic, step-by-step plan, most cases can be managed long term with a combination of allergen avoidance, special diets, shampoos and little medication. In the case of a special diet trial, it will run over an eight to 12-week period and it’s vital that nothing else is fed during this time. No treats, no table snacks, flavoured chews/medications. The aim is that the diet be free of potential allergy-causing ingredients and will ideally have ingredients (particularly proteins) that your dog has never been exposed to. Some dogs diagnosed with a food allergy will require home-cooked meals, but this must be done in conjunction with your veterinarian, as it requires careful food balancing.
Medication may be necessary where it’s impossible to remove or identify the specific allergen and even then it’s often only necessary for a short period of time if the allergy is seasonal. Your vet will guide you through the bewildering array of options. There are excellent oatmeal shampoos that help reduce itchiness such as Episoothe. Warning – be sure to use a specific dog and cat-formulated shampoo and to follow the instructions carefully. Human shampoos are not suitable for dogs and cats as their skins are quite different and human products will dry their skin out and exacerbate the itchiness.
Omega-3 fatty acids are known to help reduce itchiness. Again, type and level are important and there are excellent diets already containing high levels of omega-3s, specifically formulated to help manage allergic dogs and cats.
Remember with flea treatment to treat all pets in the household and the environment, and to use treatments that are proven to be effective. Khaki bush has been used by many people over the years as an environmental flea treatment, but unfortunately it’s not effective at all. Speak to your vet for a recommendation that works, is safe for your pets, you, your children and the environment.
If, despite all best efforts and treatment, severe allergic symptoms persist, your vet may recommend running some allergy tests. These are usually blood tests and from these results a programme of desensitisation can be set up. It’s a type of immunotherapy where the aim is to restore the body’s ‘normal’ response to the ‘problem allergens’. For these severe cases, this treatment can literally be a life saver and lead to a much better quality of life with little or no other management required.