Just like us our pets often suffer from allergies, while in humans we often see respiratory complications, in pets allergic reactions are typically characterised by skin problems. These skin problems are generally exacerbated by their primary symptom – itching and scratching! Pet allergies fall into three main categories: Flea allergy dermatitis, food allergy and atopy. It’s not uncommon for pets to be affected by more than one allergy.
FLEA ALLERGY DERMATITIS
Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) or ‘flea bite hypersensitivity’ is a skin disease brought on by an allergic reaction to flea saliva. It can take as little as a single flea to elicit the intense itching. Dogs plagued by FAD will often chew and bite regular flea hot spots such as their backs, back legs, bellies and the area above their tails as well as the tails themselves. Cats will scratch at their necks, sides, bellies, inner thighs and the area above their tails, often excessively grooming the areas which can result in hair loss. It can also lead to “hot spots”, or localised skin infections. Given that is a condition caused by fleas, their presence, or the presence of their faeces, commonly known as flea dirt is used to diagnose the condition. However it is not uncommon to miss the signs of fleas as your pet is continuously licking or chewing, often removing the evidence. So a keen and trained eye, like your veterinarians is needed, this coupled with other signs such as excessive scratching and skin sores is often used to make a diagnosis. As the symptoms of FAD can resemble those of other conditions such as infections, other allergies or even other parasites like mites or lice, your vet may sometimes do a skin test.
Once diagnosed FAD is treated very simply, by using a good quality flea treatment. Many flea treatments are available these days including spot on and chewable tablets, your vet will help you decide what sort is right for you and your pet. You may also need to take steps to rid your home of fleas, washing of bedding and vacuuming can help do this. Sometimes your vet may prescribe corticosteroids, antihistamines and essential fatty acids to relieve irritation to help break the “itch-scratch” cycle, a medicated shampoo may also be used.
Unfortunately there is no cure for FAD, your pet will always be allergic to flea bites, so prevention is much easier than treatment. Keeping your pet on a good quality flea prevention product is important to ensure flea’s can not set up camp on your pet and cause havoc!
While the exact cause is not known your pet may suffer from an allergic reaction to one or more ingredients in their food. The most common of these are beef and milk products, cereals (wheat, corn, soya), chicken and eggs. Symptoms include itching, licking or chewing, Otitis Externa (Ear Infections) and skin problems can also develop, some pets may also have diarrhoea and other digestive problems. Symptoms can appear at any age, regardless of whether your pet has just started a new diet or has been eating the same food for several years. To diagnose a food allergy your pet will need to be put on a hypoallergenic or elimination diet. If your pet suffers from a food allergy you should notice a considerable reduction in the symptoms after completing the diet trial. Slowly you can reintroduce a single protein, every 1-2 weeks, continuously monitoring your pet for a recurrence or worsening of symptoms.
When identified you can remove the offending ingredient from your pets diet. From there a carefully monitored diet for your pet should keep the condition under control. There are specially formulated foods available for food hypersensitivity that your pet may require long term. Speaking to your veterinarian about what specific diet your pet needs is important before making any changes.
Atopy, or environmental allergy, is an allergic reaction to airborne substances such as pollens, moulds, house dust mites and animal dander (skin or hair fragments). While it is most common in dogs, cats can also be affected. Atopy in a pet depends as much upon their genetic susceptibility as exposure to the allergen itself. Some breeds can be predisposed to atopy, examples include Terriers, Setters, Retrievers, Dalmations and Shar-Pei’s. The primary symptom is itching, mainly around the face, feet, lower chest and belly. How often your pet suffers from these symptoms will depend on whether the cause is seasonal (pollens) or whether the allergen is present year-round (moulds, dust mites and dander). The frequent scratching can lead to hair loss, and “hot spots”, ear problems and other infections can also develop. While the onset of these symptoms can be seen from 4 months to 7 years of age they are typically first noticed between 1-3 years of age.
A process of elimination is used to confirm atopy, other causes of itching such as fleas, mites, lice, bacterial and yeast infections, and food allergies must be ruled out first. To try and pin point the allergen responsible your vet will ask for a detailed history of your pets itching problem and may even order a skin or blood test for different allergens.
Atopy is a lifelong condition and there is no known cure, different methods are employed to help manage the problem. Anti-itch therapy, including the use of drugs and medicated shampoos, along with removing the source of the allergy as much as possible are a good place to start. Other options including Hyposensitisation can also be used, a series of injections are given to gradually accustom your pets system to the allergen responsible. Speak to your vet about what options best suit you and your pet.
NOTE: Remember that bitey insects such as mosquitoes and midges can also affect your pet, especially if they suffer from an allergy (similar to FAD where the saliva generates an allergic response). So removing potential breeding sources such as stagnant water, employing fly wires on windows and doors and keeping your pet inside during times when they are most active should help to keep their itches at bay!