Aggravating Pet Allergies: FAQ

What exactly is an allergy?

An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to an allergen that the individual has had previous exposure to.

What is an allergen?

An allergen is any substance that triggers an allergic response in an individual.  Your pet’s allergies could be to environmental allergens (dust, pollen, etc) or food (chicken protein, etc), or both.

What are some signs of allergies in my pet?

Signs of allergies in pets include scratching and itchiness, redness and inflammation of the skin, ears, or eyes, eye tearing, ear and skin discharge and infections, sneezing, coughing, and gastrointestinal signs.

How common are allergies in dogs and cats?

Unfortunately, allergic conditions, be it dermatologic, gastrointestinal, or respiratory, are quite common.  If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

Can my pet be allergic to fleas?

Simply put, yes. Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is a condition commonly seen, especially among cats. One of the first steps recommended by dermatologists in addressing allergies is making sure a prescription flea and tick (parasite) product is being used to ensure that these critters aren’t causing or complicating our issue.  Even if fleas can’t be seen, they may very well be involved, especially in cats that are good self-groomers.

Can I do an allergy test to see what my pet is allergic to?

In a sense, yes, but pet allergies are not approached in quite the same way human allergies are. For instance, the allergy tests available are not terribly good at determining food allergies, and therefore instead of identifying a specific food and avoiding it, we instead recommend feeding a prescription hypoallergenic diet on a strict trial basis (feed this and nothing else), while gauging to see how your pet responds.

Allergy testing is an option for environmental allergens, but much more with the intent of devising immunotherapy (“allergy shots”), vs. finding what tree or dust mite to avoid (these things are often unavoidable in the world and seasons we live in). So, allergy testing is an option, but it’s really used to design a treatment, as opposed to a true diagnostic test.

My dog has seasonal allergies. What does that mean?

Often a pet’s allergies come on at a certain time of year, last for a certain amount of time, and then resolve, potentially when the season changes.  This gives evidence that your pet’s allergies are more environmental than dietary, and their treatment may be addressed differently by your veterinarian.  It may still be recommended to try a hypoallergenic diet however, as often decreasing the allergic response to the food can help with environmental allergies also.

What about “grain-free” diets?

Despite what’s being marketed to you in the pet and grocery stores, the fast majority (>90%) of adverse reactions that pets experience toward their food is actually a reaction to the protein (usually meat) source, NOT the carbohydrate.  Therefore, “grain-free” is another marketing fad that is largely mimicking the trend with people to avoid or decrease carbohydrates.  There is no scientific basis to this.

What exactly are these special hypoallergenic diets then?

There are two general types of hypoallergenic diets.  The first is a novel protein diet.  These diets have a new protein (usually meat) source that your pet has never been exposed to before, and therefore cannot be allergic to.  Examples include duck, kangaroo, and venison (deer meat).

The other type of hypoallergenic diet is a hydrolyzed diet.  These diets have their protein (usually meat) source sliced on a molecular level into such small fragments that your pet’s immune system can’t recognize it or mount an immune response against it.

Both of these types of diets remain very nutritionally balanced and healthy for your pet, but because of their unique nature, are only available by prescription from a veterinarian.

I take antihistamines for my allergies.  Can my pet try these too?

Yes, but be careful.  Antihistamines can be helpful in mild to moderate allergic cases, but beyond that may not provide sufficient treatment to make our pets comfortable.  Before giving your pet any medication though, be sure to discuss with your veterinarian.  We want to (1) make sure the dose is right and safe; and (2) ensure that no other medication is present in the product as these can be very dangerous.

If antihistamines don’t work well enough for my pet, what are my other options?

A number of other options are available which can be discussed with your veterinarian.  These include:

Steroids – These usually work well but have side effects and risks, both short and long term

Atopica ® (cyclosporine A) – This is a medication that targets key cells in the immune system that cause allergic reactions and stops itching before it starts

Shampoos & Conditioners – Medical options that can help control itch and prevent secondary infections

Topical Medications – If the affected areas are more localized, we can use spray-on or ointment medications to address that specific area

Omega Fatty Acids – Specifically dosed veterinary formulations can be added to your pet’s diet to help with coat quality and act as an anti-inflammatory

Immunotherapy (“Allergy Shots”) – In more severe cases or cases refractory to the above treatment options, allergy shots can be discussed.

What about antibiotics?  My pet keeps getting ear and/or skin infections.

It is a key point to note that such infections almost always have allergies as their underlying primary cause.  I.e. if your pet has allergies, it is going to be extra prone to developing these infections, sometimes over and over again.  So yes, antibiotics and/or anti-yeast medications are needed in these situations, but it must be stressed that this only resolves the secondary infection.  Once we resolve this, we try to talk to pet owners about addressing the primary allergy and working to prevent any more recurrent infections.  This both saves your pet discomfort and you money in the long run.

In summary, your pet’s allergies can be a frustrating problem with both multifaceted causes and multifaceted treatments.  There can be a certain amount of trial and error involved, which can be surely frustrating and require patience, but working closely and honestly with your veterinarian ensures good control of your pet’s allergies in time, even if they can’t be truly cured.