It’s that time of year again when spring flowers start poking up through the still-cold ground, first buds on trees start blooming, and allergy sufferers start stocking up on antihistamines and decongestants. It’s also the time of year when veterinarians prepare for every Zoe, Chloe and Buddy lining up to be seen for their allergies, too! But while their humans get stuffy noses, watery eyes, and achy heads, our pets experience a different type of reaction to the change of the season—itching. Thump, thump, thump, lick, lick, lick…if your pet has allergies, you know the telltale sounds all too well.
So, what are seasonal allergies and what can dogs and cats become allergic to? Allergies are an overreaction of the body’s immune system to substances in the environment that would otherwise be harmless: pollen, grass, mold, dust and flea saliva to name a few. Just as in people, all of the causes of allergies are not known, but genetics play a role. Some breeds are more allergic than others, and most will present with their first bout between the ages of 2-4 years. This is because it normally takes repeated exposure to an allergen in order for the immune system to react.
Identifying what a pet is reacting to is often difficult and sometimes requires allergy testing. The most common pet allergies include flea, food, contact, and environmental (also called Atopy). Classic “seasonal allergies” tend to fall under flea and environmental. An allergic pet is usually an itchy pet who may also lick the skin or feet, have ear infections, and even hair loss as signs of their allergic disease. Upper respiratory disease (i.e. sneezing, reverse sneezing, coughing, and runny nose) is also a possible sign of seasonal allergies, but this is not nearly as common as itchiness.
Treating Seasonal Pet Allergies
What can be done for seasonal allergy sufferers? First and foremost, especially here in the southeastern United States, all animals and particularly those who suffer from allergies, must be on a flea preventive program year-round. Inconsistent freezing temperatures and often shorter, warmer winters mean fleas don’t ever give us a break. In fact, veterinarians and pet owners see some of the worst flea infestations in the late fall or early winter when people feel it is safe to stop preventives. Just one flea bite can set off a severe reaction in a flea allergic pet. Flea saliva is the number one cause of itching in pets. The good news is that itching is a problem we can control with treatment, unlike many other allergies.
Fleas multiply quickly, and a flea allergic pet is often your first sign of fleas in the home. Fleas prefer to feed on animals, so by the time you are being bitten there are likely hundreds of thousands of fleas in your home. It is important to find a flea control product that works. If you still see live fleas a week or two after you apply a topical, either the fleas are no longer susceptible to the product or you have an overwhelming flea population. Let your veterinarian know this so that he or she can provide an effective product and advice on environmental clean up.
What the Vet Will Do
When you bring your furry family member to the vet, your veterinarian will first take a medical history (i.e., asking questions about lifestyle, diet, medications, etc.) to try to find the problem. Your vet will go over your fur-baby, literally, with a fine tooth comb, and will likely recommend basic skin testing to find the right approach to tackling the misery caused by seasonal allergies. Skin testing can also determine if secondary issues need to be addressed to speed recovery. Depending on the type and severity of the secondary skin issue, oral and/or topical medications may be prescribed to resolve bacterial, fungal, or mite infections. It is imperative that secondary infections be COMPLETELY cleared before treatment is discontinued. This will likely include recheck examinations and possibly repeat testing. Although this may be inconvenient and seem unnecessary, incompletely resolved infections mean that your pet’s symptoms will return. True recurrence of a completely resolved allergic symptom is a sure sign that your pet is an allergy sufferer and may need a different approach to manage allergies long term.
Your veterinarian may recommend blood work depending on your pet’s age and symptoms. This will rule out a low functioning thyroid as a contributing factor in your pet’s itchiness and prescribe medication if indicated.
If your pet’s discomfort is severe, your vet may also prescribe a low-dose, short-course steroid, steroid/antihistamine combination medication or an oral antihistamine. Once a pet is very itchy, antihistamines alone are not often effective, so judicious use of steroids does have an important role in treating allergic pets. Steroids have negative side effects when used long term, however, so you and your veterinarian should commit to using the shortest course and lowest effective dose to control the itching.
Home-Based Allergy Treatments
Bathing your pet in a veterinary-formulated, soap-free, medicated shampoo will help your pet feel better immediately, help the skin issues clear more quickly, and prevent seasonal allergies from progressing if instituted early and often. This is paramount in the initial as well as long term management of allergic patients. Dogs and cats live in their coats 24/7, so they are continuously exposed to allergy inducing particles in their fur. Bathing can make a world of difference in our allergic pets.
Once secondary issues are resolved and itchiness is controlled, you will likely be advised to continue bathing your pet weekly to keep allergens off the skin. You may also need to continue administering an antihistamine for several weeks to prevent recurrence. Omega-3 Fatty acids may be recommended to build and maintain the skin barrier as well as to act as an internal anti-inflammatory. The goal is to use steroids and antibiotics short term while using other measures long term to help you manage your pet’s itchiness. If your pet becomes a frequent allergy sufferer who needs steroids more than a couple of short courses per year, ask your veterinarian about allergy testing and alternatives to steroids including oral immune modulating medications. Many clinics also offer alternative and complementary approaches including acupuncture, food therapy, and herbal medicine for interested owners and cases that are harder to control.
Allergies, in general, are one of the most frustrating issues that pets and their owners face. It is important to note that getting them under control is not likely be a quick fix. Here at Harmony, we understand and are committed to finding the treatment that works best for you and your pet. The goal is a happier, healthier pet and a well-educated pet owner who truly feels that we are all on the same team!
Dr. Eve is a veterinarian at Harmony Animal Hospital in Apex.