Scratching the surface: Finding the cause is key to treating your pet’s allergies

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Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

I keep saying this every year, but this year seems like the worst allergy spring I can remember. It is quite possible that, like ticks, allergies keep getting worse. It is also possible that I forget after a nice cold winter. Allergies present in pets differently than in people, so we must be aware of things to watch out for. The most common signs of allergies in our pets are licking, chewing, itching and hair loss. These certainly aren’t the signs that I am having, but human red runny eyes equate to dog itchy skin.

Pets can be allergic to many things, but the most common are environmental allergens. This means grass, trees and flower pollens. While they may be allergic to the same things that people are, they present very differently. Dogs are more likely than cats to have environmental allergies. They start by licking or chewing their feet. Often you will see the hair discolored between their toes from saliva, even if you don’t see them doing it. They will also lick and scratch their armpits, bellies and sides.

Many people notice their dogs itching because it keeps them up at night. When the day finally quiets down and everyone goes to bed, dogs have nothing better to think about than their itchy skin. This doesn’t mean that it bothers them more at night, just that they don’t have anything else to occupy their minds.

You may notice hair loss, brown staining to the hair between toes, red or scaly skin spots or little cuts. As pets itch they break the normal skin barrier. This allows bacteria and yeast to move in, which creates skin infections and even more itching. All infections should be treated, but it is also important to break the itch cycle. We always scrape the skin to look for bacteria type and amount, yeast or any mites. Each of these is treated differently and are very important to look for. Of course, fleas are a top cause of allergies and the easiest thing to treat. Fleas should always be treated first, and ideally, pets are on prevention to avoid fleas. In some pets, one flea bite can start a cycle of itching that takes plenty of time and medication to resolve.

There are new medications to help treat itch that don’t have the adrenal side effects of steroids. All medications do have side effects, so determining the best course for each individual case is important. There are medications that work long- and short-term, and sometimes steroids are needed for break-through itching. We always recommend steroids in pill form, as the injections often last longer in the body than they help with the itching. This means that they get higher and higher doses to help with the itch, but their blood levels may be high enough to cause serious side effects. These are the pets that are more at risk for adrenal disease.

While shots are easier for owners, oral dosing ensures that we have tighter control over blood levels. For long-term treatment, avoiding steroids is the best idea whenever possible since long-term steroids can cause diabetes, heart disease, and adrenal dysfunction. Antihistamines are another good option for lower-grade itching, but should always be dosed by your veterinarian. We do have an allergy shot that can help dogs with signs of allergies. These are new in the past couple years and can make a big difference in comfort.

If allergies persist year-round, food may be the culprit. As I explain often, usually the offending allergen is a protein like chicken or pork and not a grain. Some pets are often allergic to things found in the house, like dust mites and couch filling. Cats usually present with breathing issues, though they can also get itchy paws or faces. They are more commonly reactive to indoor allergens or food, since their outdoor exposure is less.

Allergy testing is the next step. Dermatologists often do intradermal testing, which means they put the allergen into the skin and measure reactions (just like in people.) There is also a blood test you can do at your own veterinarian. After we find out what your pet is allergic to, we can start allergy injections. This is a mix of all of their allergens in a shot form. The shots start out with a very low concentration and get higher over time until they reach a maintenance level. The goal of these is to acclimate their body to small amounts of an allergen so they react less when they are exposed to nature. We typically see a big reduction in itching and skin problems with the injections.

There are many ways to manage allergies, but the most important thing is letting your veterinarian know right away that something is going on. The sooner we can intervene, the less damage your pet’s skin will have, and the sooner we can make them comfortable. Sneezing and itchy eyes aren’t fun, but having an itch they cannot scratch drives our pets crazy.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL:

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