Animals suffer from allergies in exactly the same way people do. In fact, dogs and cats can react just as severely as their human companions to environmental allergens – and eventually develop reactions that can go from mild to life-threatening.
Environmental allergies (also known as atopic dermatitis or atopy) can be caused by direct contact or by your pet inhaling the allergen.
The main differences between these two types of allergies are:
- the intensity, and
- the range of symptoms
although these can be easily confused by the untrained eye.
Common Types of Environmental Allergies
Inhalant allergies are triggered when your pet breathes in the allergen. Just as in the case of humans, pets can become allergic to mildew, pollen, dust mites, and mold. The good news is that often these allergies are seasonal, which means your pet won’t have to deal with them year-round. On the other hand, seasonal allergies might be harder to diagnose because many pet owners don’t pursue treatment once they see the symptoms disappear.
While human respiratory allergies often lead to ongoing respiratory problems, most pets with an inhalant allergy actually develop skin problems, including intense itchiness of the feet and eyes. They might also suffer from frequent ear infections.
Contact allergies are less common and only occur when your pet’s skin touches something that irritates it. If the contact is frequent, an allergy can eventually develop. Pets can become allergic to almost anything, from flea collars to carpet cleaners to plastic food bowls. Some pets develop allergies to bedding material or fillers, so they require special hypoallergenic bedding.
Contact allergies cause intense itching, and they can also produce red bumps and inflammation of the skin. The constant scratching caused by allergies can lead to secondary skin infections, as many pets will scratch until the skin breaks open and bleeds.
Testing and Diagnosis
Diagnosing an allergy can be difficult and time consuming, so it’s important that you bring your pet to the vet at the first sign of discomfort. Waiting too long can cause the symptoms to worsen and the allergy to spread, potentially leading to infections and other complications.
Testing for allergies involves several steps, including skin scrapes and skin culture, usually done through Heska, one of the top veterinary point-of-care diagnostic laboratories in the country.
Sometimes your vet will also recommend an elimination diet. This is to check whether your pet is allergic to any food ingredient (anything from wheat to corn to additives) commonly used in pet food. To do this, your pet will need to switch to a hypoallergenic food for a period of time – and eat only that. If the allergy symptoms disappear after the switch, you can infer that your pet has a food allergy. If the symptoms persist, your vet might rule out a food allergy and will instead conduct other tests to find the cause of the allergies.
The best course of treatment for environmental allergies is to eliminate the allergen. Once the cause of the allergy has been identified, you can then make changes in your pet’s health and lifestyle habits in order to improve symptoms. For example, if your pet has an allergy to his flea collar, you can switch to liquid preventives instead.
Your vet might also recommend some of a number of medications to help ease the symptoms associated with allergic reactions. Common prescriptions include immunosuppressive drugs (Cyclosporine), antihistamines (Benadryl, Zyrtec, Hydroxyzine), and steroids (Prednisone).