One of the most common calls made to my hospital this time of the year is a complaint about an itchy cat or dog. Unlike people who get respiratory problems with allergies, most cats and dogs get itchy skin (called pruritus) and ear infections.
There are three main types of allergies we see in pets. Food allergies,
flea allergy dermatitis, and atopic dermatitis.
Food allergies: There are misconceptions about this allergy. It is very common to hear that your pet is allergic to something in its food. This is false. As a matter of fact, experts believe that true food allergies only comprise between 5 to 10 percent of skin allergies in cats and dogs. If your veterinarian has eliminated the more common causes of allergies and diagnosed your pet with a true food allergy, then you may need to avoid wheat, beef and dairy products for dogs, and fish, beef and dairy products for cats. These ingredients account for most of the food allergies we see in pets. Also, premium or boutique pet foods often contain one of more of these ingredients so feeding your pet a higher priced food will not always prevent food allergies. Your veterinarian can advise you on a well balanced diet that will improve your pets overall health.
Flea allergy: Flea allergy dermatitis is still one of the most frequent allergies I see in cats and dogs. When a flea bites your pet to take a meal, saliva containing anti-coagulant enters the skin to prevent clotting. Your pet becomes allergic to this saliva. It is not the number of fleas on the pet that makes them itch. In fact, it may only take one of two flea bites to keep them scratching for weeks. Mosquitoes do the same thing when they bite us and we know how much that can itch. Cats may develop miliary dermatitis (small bumps with scabs) around the neck and rump often with hair loss. Most dogs will scratch and lose hair on the back third of their body. Many of the scooting dogs I see turn out to be allergic to fleas. All cats and dogs should be on flea control year round. The veterinary dermatologist’s mantra is to, “treat for fleas whether you see them or not and treat frequently.” Your veterinarian can provide you with excellent flea control and its proper use.
Atopic dermatitis: Atopic dermatitis, sometimes called hay fever, is an allergy that occurs when a pet is repeatedly exposed to airborne allergens such as pollen, house dust, weeds, and grasses. There is no limit to the number of these allergens. There may be hundreds, if not thousands of potential allergens in the air. I’ve seen cats allergic to dog hair, dogs allergic to cat hair, and believe it or not, dogs allergic to human hair. It is still unclear exactly how these allergens enter the body. However, most veterinary dermatologists believe that it may be a combination of inhaling, ingestion and direct contact with the skin. Cats and dogs may rub their face, scratch or lick their side, belly and legs, and chew their feet. Dogs often develop ear infections too.
While there is no cure for this type of allergy, there is treatment. Bathing can make a big difference in some pets. In addition to bathing, wiping them down with a wet cloth when they come indoors can remove pollen that sticks to their coat.
Many pets will have a combination of these allergies. In addition, if your pet scratches more than a few days, they can develop a secondary skin or ear infection. This can complicate the situation and make it very difficult to find the underlying cause of your pet’s scratching.
Getting to the bottom of itchy skin is like peeling an onion. There are many layers. After taking a thorough history and exam, your veterinarian can determine if your pet has one or more of these allergies and secondary infections and prescribe a course of treatment.