Itching, Rashes & Licking, Oh My!

When Maggie, a 3-year-old Cocker Spaniel, came in to see the doctor her paws were licked raw, her ears were reddened inside, and she had an annoying habit of shaking her head around every few minutes. At first, her owners thought her obsessive-compulsive licking was a personality quirk, until they couldn’t get her to stop. Eventually, she was diagnosed with allergies.

Most people don’t realize dogs and cats get allergies too, and how they respond is very different than the human allergic response. Allergies are usually not noticeable in kittens or puppies because most don’t develop reactions until 1 to 4years of age. The good news is rather than your pet suffering in discomfort, and you going nuts listening to them lick all night long, you can find out what substance is causing the issue and how to control your pet’s allergic reaction.

What causes allergies?

Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system to substances we would usually consider harmless. In pets, their skin will become unbearably itchy and irritated. This condition is referred to as Atopic Dermatitis. An allergic reaction occurs when an animal inhales airborne substances like pollen or house dust, or eats a substance to which they are sensitive. The allergic reaction causes the animal to rub, lick, bite or scratch themselves. Unlike humans, animals with allergies only occasionally cough, sneeze or get asthma. Instead, they itch.

How do you stop the itching?

Allergies due to food reactions can be avoided, while those due to airborne substances can only be controlled. Today we’re going to discuss the three options available to help manage your pet’s airborne allergies – steroids, anti-histamines and immunotherapy.

Steroids are used most frequently to control the allergic response that causes inflammation and discomfort for your cat and dog. Steroids, while effective at reducing the symptoms, have several side effects such as excessive drinking, urinating and eating as well as increased susceptibility to infection. If used long-term without appropriate supervision, steroids could shorten your pet’s life.

An option that has fewer side effects than steroids is a combination of anti-histamines and essential fatty acids (EFAs). This combination can take up to two months to be completely effective and will work for only 10 to 25 percent of pets with airborne allergies.

Another option for allergic pets is allergy testing and immunotherapy. This treatment method works to improve your pet’s immune system response and cut allergic reactions off at the source. The first step is a test that involves injecting a small amount of allergens into the skin and then evaluating which allergens affect your pet. Once identified, you can try to limit your dog’s or cat’s exposure to those allergens. But, for most pets, avoidance on its own does not work because the allergens are typically common environmental items that cannot be completely eliminated.

Immunotherapy, sometimes referred to as allergy vaccine therapy, is a technique in which your pet receives regular, small doses of the allergen to desensitize the immune system and stop it from overreacting to the harmless allergen. The majority of pets respond well to this treatment with success for three out of four dogs, and four out of five cats. Because immunotherapy depends on the immune system for the allergy injections to work, it may take six to 12 months for them to become fully effective.

Who can help me?

If your dog or cat is showing signs of itchiness, as discussed above, your first step is to bring him/her in to see your family veterinarian for an evaluation. They can talk with you about the options and make a recommendation based on your pet’s needs.