We all know people who suffer from allergies and their symptoms: red, watery eyes, scratchy throat, itchy or runny nose, medicine that makes them feel like a zombie. Dogs and cats can have allergies too, but their symptoms don’t look the same as ours do, so pinpointing their problems can be more difficult.
Dr. Patricia Ashley, a veterinary dermatologist practicing in Springfield, Oregon since 1999, says that while humans sneeze, dogs and cats manifest allergies through their skin. Itching is the most common symptom, but be mindful of others, like excessive chewing and licking, scratching at ears, rubbing face and eyes, hair loss, or redness (inflammation), and even an unpleasant odor of the skin. Cats may have upper respiratory issues such as a cough that resembles working up a hairball, but nothing comes out.
“Allergies are not curable,” says Dr. Ashley, “but they are controllable. Our goal is to keep the pets comfortable and to minimize medication.”
Determine the problem
The first thing a veterinarian will ask is how often the symptoms are occurring. “Did they have the same problem last year, or is this the first time they’re having an issue?” explains the doctor. The veterinarian may opt for a ‘treat this and see if it comes back’ approach before proceeding on a more rigorous path of treatment. The doctor may also perform a skin scrape, looking for mites or other, more curable, causes.
Some simple diagnostic tests can be done right in the office. “If it’s a chronic problem then the veterinarian will figure out what the underlying problem is,” says Dr. Ashley, “and many pets have more than one.”
What can be done depends on the problem. During the process of trying to determine what the problem is, rinsing pets in cool water can be soothing. And while pets can take antihistamines, it’s important for their vet to determine proper dosage.
“There’s not much that we can do in terms of changing the home to make allergies go away,” says Ashley, “especially, unfortunately, if the allergy is something airborne like pollen.”
Food allergies are a different concern. While fairly common, they’re not as common as allergies to pollen or flea bite. “There’s as much opinion as fact regarding how to manage food allergy,” says the doctor. You will need to eliminate foods while feeding one known to have unique ingredients, while also providing a balanced diet. “It’s advisable to talk to a vet before diving into this on your own,” she says.
The most common environmental allergies in the Northwest are grass, tree and weed pollens in spring and summer, and molds during the rainy season, says Dr. Terese DeManuelle, a dermatologist at Allergy and Dermatology Veterinary Referral Center in Milwaukie, Oregon. “They can be treated in a number of ways,” she says, “including antihistamines, omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids, allergy testing and injections, and prescription oral anti-inflammatory medications.”
Comfort starts at home
Your vet will recommend a treatment strategy for environmental allergies, but Dr. DeManuelle offers the following tips:
- If your pet has grass allergies, keep them inside while mowing and until the fresh-cut smell passes.
- If your pet has mold spore allergies, keep them out of basements and damp garages.
- For pets with dust mite allergies, know the danger zones: concentrations are generally highest in bedrooms thanks to fabrics and rugs. Dried flowers and upholstered furniture also rank high for microscopic mites. A good quality HEPA filter can help reduce dust and dust mites in bedrooms.
- Frequent bathing in room temperature water can remove pollens and other allergens for temporary relief.
- Minimizing hot-air blow dryers and perfumes often used at groomers can help reduce itchiness.
If your dog or cat truly has an environmental allergy it’s likely they bring the offending substance inside the house on their face, coat or paws, so swab ’em with baby wipes at the door.
Go On Flea Patrol
With allergic reactions to bugs such as the ubiquitous flea, a dog need only get bitten a couple of times to experience intense itching. “Most of the time the location of the itching is on the tail or back legs,” says Dr. Amy Randall, a dermatology specialist at Animal Allergy and Ear Clinic in Beaverton.
Flea allergies can be tricky. “I’ve seen some dogs who have tons of fleas and don’t itch,” says Dr. Amy. Animals, especially cats, swallow the fleas when they chew or lick the itch. Dogs and cats can be allergic to fleas but not appear to have many on them. “With allergies to trees and grasses we can make up serums of these things and start the animals on desensitization treatments,” says the doctor. Unfortunately, flea allergies don’t respond to treatments. Avoidance and aggressive flea control is the best you can do.
The Good Doctors:
Dr. Patricia Ashley
5105 Main St. Springfield
Dr. Terese DeManuelle
6323 SE King Rd. Milwaukie
Dr. Amy Randall
4100 SW 109th Ave. Beaverton
Vanessa Salvia lives with her two kids, one very sweet, fluffy cat (named Fluffy), and a husband (also very sweet), in Eugene, Oregon. When not clickety-clacking on a computer, you can find her browsing the farmers markets or feeding ducks from her patio. A freelance writer for more than 10 years, Vanessa has written extensively about music and entertainment in the Northwest. As mom, wife and companion to countless animals over the years, she has vacuumed more than her share of pet fur.