When our late greyhound Savanna couldn’t stop chewing at her feet, we took her to a veterinary dermatologist to see if he could pinpoint the problem. An allergy test, which involved injecting small amounts of potentially troublesome substances (pollen, grasses, weeds and molds) into her skin, told us the bad news: She was allergic to fescue, the most common grass in our neighborhood, as well as to cats (we had three).
Pets with allergies scratch, lick and chew in a futile effort to quell the intense itching sensation. They sometimes lick and chew their paws until they’re red or raw, rub their faces on carpets or furniture, scratch desperately at their ears, and develop rashes in armpit and groin areas.
Back in the day, the most gnawing concern of pet owners was fleabite allergy, but the development of safer and more effective flea-control products has reduced its incidence. Now, pets are more likely to itch and scratch in reaction to environmental or inhalant allergies—sometimes referred to as atopy or atopic dermatitis—or food allergies.
Grasses, weeds, pollens, mold and dust mites are the main culprits in environmental allergies. Foods to which pets are most often allergic are proteins such as beef, chicken and soy—and carbohydrates such as corn or wheat.
Environmental allergies plague up to 15 percent of purebred dogs, and mixed breeds can develop them too. These types of allergies are often seasonal. But many dogs and cats also suffer nonseasonal allergies, leading to year-round problems that may spike during certain times of the year.
Clues such as recurrent skin infections, where the itching occurs on the body, and the pet’s breed and age can help your veterinarian confirm a diagnosis.
“Most environmental allergies show up in dogs between 1 to 5 years of age,” says Kim Boyanowski, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist at Peninsula Animal Dermatology in Redwood City. “Most food allergies show up at less than 1 year of age in puppies, or when they’re geriatric dogs.”
Genetics can be a factor. Allergies tend to occur more often in certain families or lines of dog breeds—something to ask about before you purchase a puppy. In general, the breeds most likely to develop allergies are golden retrievers, most terriers, Dalmatians, Chinese shar-pei, Labrador retrievers, boxers and bulldogs.
Food allergies are often suspected when dogs have itchy skin problems, but cats have more food allergies than dogs. If your cat is itchy or scabby around the head, neck and ears, it may be suffering a food allergy.
Treatment varies, depending on the severity of the allergies. Antihistamines and high levels of essential fatty acid supplements from fish oils can help keep flare-ups under control in pets with mild cases.
“You usually can’t cause significant harm by giving too many fatty acids, where you may not get the desired effect if you don’t give enough,” Boyanowski says.
Pets with moderate allergy problems may benefit from allergy shots.
“They tend to do very well on immunotherapy such as allergy shots or sublingual—under the tongue—therapy to desensitize them to those things that they’re reactive to based on allergy testing,” Boyanowski says. With a little training from a veterinary technician or veterinarian, it’s easy to give allergy shots at home.
Pets with severe allergies need more aggressive treatment, such as steroids given every other day.
“Some of the newer therapies, one in particular called Atopica, can be helpful to bring down the symptoms of those allergies or can be combined with allergy treatment such as traditional injections or the newer under-the-tongue therapy if immunotherapy is not enough,” Boyanowski says. In any case, she adds, frequent bathing with appropriate shampoos and conditioners can help soothe itchy skin, and some pets respond to homeopathic therapies such as Rescue Remedy.