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Allergies in Dogs and Cats

Sneezing, watery eyes, coughing and of course, itching: these are all tell-tale signs that your fur baby may be suffering from allergies. Just like in humans, an allergy occurs when the pet’s immune system becomes overly sensitive to an everyday substance and considers it a threat. The adverse reaction occurs when the body tries to rid itself of this substance.

Common symptoms of allergies

Due to the wide range of allergens that can affect your pet, the symptoms, too, can be wide-ranging. Symptoms of allergies may be similar to other issues, such as a cold, but the main thing that may indicate an allergy is the itch factor. Continued scratching may be an indication of an allergic reaction or sensitivity, even in cases if it was something your pet has eaten or breathed in.

Allergies may manifest as:

  • Itchy skin – this is the most common sign of all allergies in both dogs and cats.
  • Itchy tail – in addition to generalized itching, cats and dogs with flea allergies may be particularly itchy around the base of their tail.
  • Ear infections
  • Sneezing and runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Vomiting or diarrhea – usually a symptom of a reaction to food.
  • Loss of appetite – in the case of food allergies.
  • Snoring – caused by a swollen throat.
  • Sensitive paws – you may notice the paws are swollen or that your pet is chewing them.
  • Coughing – note that cats rarely cough and this is almost certainly a sign of allergies or asthma.

Acute allergic reactions result in much more serious symptoms. These are most likely when your pet has a true food allergy, as opposed to the more common food sensitivity. These reactions may also occur after vaccinations or bee stings.

Symptoms of acute allergic reactions:

  • Hives
  • Swelling of the face, lips, eyes, and throat
  • Anaphylaxis – this involves breathing difficulties, a drop in blood sugar, and collapse. In the case of anaphylactic shock, pets require immediate medical attention.

Types of allergies

Allergic reactions can, in fact, be caused by pretty much anything, but they fall into four main groups:

Food allergies

Although people usually talk about food allergies, the more correct term for physical reactions to foods is a food sensitivity or intolerance. A true allergy can be compared to a peanut allergy in humans, where the food causes anaphylactic shock, which is much rarer.

A dog or cat can develop a sensitivity to anything in their diet, even if they have eaten it for years without a problem. In theory, animals can be intolerant to any food stuff, but the most common causes are beef, chicken, lamb, eggs, soy, dairy, and grains. The large number of ingredients found in commercial pet foods can make it hard to determine exactly which ingredient is the culprit.

A food allergy or intolerance should not be confused with a normal physical reaction to problematic food, such as vomiting after eating rancid meat.

Flea allergies

When we talk about a flea allergy, we don’t mean the normal scratching that a flea bite can cause. A true flea allergy will mean that even 2-3 bites can cause incessant itching for a number of weeks. Flea allergy dermatitis is caused when an animal develops a sensitivity to flea saliva. This saliva is injected into your pet’s skin when the flea feeds, provoking an immune response that leads to itching, rashes, raw skin and hair loss. This is a particularly common cause of allergies in dogs and cats.

Environmental allergies

Just as humans can suffer from hay fever, animals can also be allergic to things that they breathe in. The common organic causes of environmental include pollen, cut grass, dust, mold, and mildew, which may be worse at certain times of the year. For example, pollen is more problematic in Spring. There are also non-natural allergens that are termed environmental allergens, including perfume, cigarette smoke, and the dust from kitty litter.

Contact allergies

As the term suggests, contact allergies are caused by something that comes into direct contact with your pet. Contact allergy reactions are not as common and tend to be restricted to the area of contact, but they can still be unpleasant for the animal. As you can imagine, the list of potential contact allergens is extensive but includes:

  • Medicated products – Be aware that your dog or cat may be sensitive to particular ingredients found in common parasite treatments.
  • Cleaning products– Consider the surfaces that your pet comes into contact with and the products you use to clean them, particularly anything you use to wash their bedding. Even products designed specifically for pets, such as shampoos, can cause allergic reactions in some animals.
  • Plastic and rubber – Did you know your pet can be allergic to their food bowl? Consider switching from plastic to glass or ceramic.
  • Fabrics – Even natural fabrics can be problematic, wool and feathers in particular.

Complications of allergies

As well as providing ongoing distress and pain to your furry friend, allergies can lead to other issues. Environmental allergens can lead to bronchitis, sinus infections or asthma. Sinus infections will require treatment, and should not be treated with over the counter medications. In cats, the coughing of asthma and bronchitis can appear similar to coughing up a hairball, so owners should take care to notice if this coughing is regular and persistent.

Any allergic reaction that causes skin irritation can also trigger a hot spot. Hot spots are formed after an animal scratches, licks or bites the same patch of skin continuously. As bacteria enter the broken skin, an infection develops, leading painful hot skin, open sores, and hair loss. Due to the cycle of infection and itching, these hot spots do not resolve on their own and will require treatment.

Diagnosing allergies

Unfortunately, diagnosing allergies can be difficult and time-consuming, due to the sheer number of potential allergens that may be affecting your pet.

Food allergens are usually established by placing your pet on a strict elimination diet, that removes all potential allergens. This usually involves a limited ingredient diet based on proteins that your pet may not have eaten previously, such as duck or bison. If the adverse reactions subside, other ingredients are slowly introduced in order to discover the cause of the problem.

In the case of a suspected contact or environmental allergy, your vet will likely perform a blood test or a skin (pin-prick) test. For a pin-prick test, a patch of the skin will be shaved and injected with small amounts of the potential allergens. Within 15 minutes, any allergic reactions will usually develop at the injection site.

Preventing and treating allergies

While there’s no way of curing an allergy to a particular substance, food or parasite, there are plenty of steps you can take to reduce the impact that these allergies have on your pet.

The most important thing you can do is to prevent or reduce exposure to the allergen, which is obviously only possible when you know exactly what your pet is allergic to. For food allergies, this will mean eliminating the allergen from the diet, while making sure your pet still gets the right balance of nutrients.

For allergies to fleas or other parasites, the key is maintaining regular parasite prevention. Fleas can be difficult to eradicate due to their fast breeding cycle, which is why your pet needs to be treated every month to keep the pests at bay. You’ll also need to maintain a flea-free environment by tackling fleas in the home and in your yard.

Environmental triggers are much more difficult to avoid, particularly for dogs and outdoor cats, however, there are some steps you can take to lessen the impact. By regularly vacuuming and washing your pet’s bedding you will reduce the amount of dust and other allergens that might linger. You could also consider an air purifier. If your pet’s environmental allergy results in skin problems, regular bathing will clean the skin of allergens.

If the allergen cannot be avoided, then you will need to treat the symptoms as they arise. There are plenty of medicated and natural products that can help soothe itchy skin and provide your pet with some relief. Antibiotic creams will both reduce itching and also prevent the development of infections.

Your vet may also to prescribe medication to assist with symptoms, particularly for environmental allergies. These include antihistamines for sneezing and watery eyes, corticosteroids to control itching, and antibiotics to treat any secondary infections that develop.

Allergies in Dogs and Cats

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