Lately, your best friend Spot has been licking his paws, rubbing his face and yelping incessantly because of chronic ear infections.
Your pet may be an allergy sufferer, and a visit to a veterinary dermatologist could be in order.
Pet allergies have some of the same characteristics as those found in humans, but there are also some distinct differences.
Between dogs and cats, the most common house pets, allergic reactions are more predominant in dogs, said Karen Helton Rhodes, a board certified veterinary dermatologist who practices in Riverdale, N.J.
Rhodes said she often sees cats in urban areas having environmental allergies (called “atopy”) following repeated exposure to both indoor and outdoor airborne allergens. Typical aeroallergens include pollens (trees, weeds, and grasses), molds, dust, wool, animal dander and feathers, which are either inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
Rhodes said one difference between allergies in humans and pets is that people tend to get allergies early in life and tend to outgrow them, especially food allergies.
“With pets, particularly dogs, they develop them between two and four years old and the allergies get worse over time,” she said.
Food allergies are the least common allergic skin diseases in animals, although Rhodes said certain states, such as Florida and Michigan, see proportionately more food allergies in pets.
Flea allergy and environmental allergies are more frequently observed in animals. Non-food or atopic allergic reactions are an inherited predisposition, according to Dr. Mark Macina, a dermatologist at the E&M Bobst Hospital of the Animal Medical Center in New York City.
With dogs, certain breeds are more likely to develop allergic skin diseases than others. Terriers (West Highland, White and Pit bulls), Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Boxers, and Bulldogs (both French and English) are the most commonly affected breeds, although all purebreds are at some risk for allergies.
“Cat breeds are a little more difficult to identify, but we do see a larger number of Abyssinians,” said Rhodes.
Birds are also susceptible to allergies.
“Some avian specialists feel that feather picking may be a manifestation of allergies and not simply a behavioral problem,” said Dr. Terri Bonenberger, another veterinary dermatologist who practices at the Animal Allergy & Dermatology Group in New York City.
Signs that your animal has an allergy depend upon the type of pet it is. For dogs, allergies often cause constant itching (around the ears, head, and neck) and paw licking and/or chewing in a generalized pattern.
Dogs also often have a history of recurrent skin and ear infections. Cats tend to be itchy on their head and ears and can have watery eyes and noses (together with coughing), but sometimes the only symptom exhibited is hair loss, according to Bonenberger.
“Cats are often ‘closet groomers’, “she said.
Diagnosing a pet allergy is determined by whether it is a seasonal or non-seasonal or whether it is food-based. “If a dog scratches year round, it’s a safe bet to be a non-seasonal allergy,” said Rhodes.
As is typical with food allergies in people, the best way to diagnose a food allergy is through an eight- to 10-week strict hypoallergenic dietary log, said Bonenberger.
Through process of elimination, the culprit food can be eliminated from the pet’s diet.
With environmental allergies, intradermal skin tests and vaccines are given to see evidence of wheals (a firm, elevated, round or flat-topped skin lesion).
In preparing your pet for a visit to the dermatologist, Rhodes made the following recommendations:
Do not bathe your pet for one week prior to the visit If an intradermal skin test is going to be performed, pets must be off all medications four weeks prior to the procedure Pets undergoing a biopsy should stop all medications one week prior to the appointment Do not use any topical medications on your pet if it has an eye infection for one week prior to the exam
Treatment of environmental allergies differs depending upon the symptoms.
“Typically, the infections that dogs and cats incur due to allergic disease require systemic and/or topical antibiotics, antifungals for complete resolution,” said Bonenberger. “Simple bathing and/or ear cleaning alone does not resolve the problem.”
Animals may also require regular allergy vaccinations over the course of their lifetimes.
Steroids such as cortisone are often used for short-term relief, but long-term use is not encouraged due to the drug’s unwanted side-effects.
With hay fever or allergic rhinitis, a combination of therapies can also be used including antihistamines and topical therapy such as the use of special shampoos, conditioners and lotions. Topical therapy is generally used as a complement to other treatments.
“Remember, allergies cannot be cured, but can be controlled with proper therapy, Macina added.”