Allergies in Pets: How They Manifest and How to Treat Them
Like humans, dogs and cats can be overly sensitive to various kinds of allergens—either in the air, in their food, or on their bodies. The most common symptoms which may indicate that your dog or cat is having an allergic reaction are excessively itching, biting, or licking of their bodies. Less commonly, in cats, allergies will lead to respiratory issues.
I had a chance to visit with Montclair Veterinary Hospital’s team of doctors and spoke with them about how they typically treat pets who are suffering from distressing allergic reactions.
There are two distinct and related questions that the vets at Montclair attempt to answer when first seeing a patients showing symptoms of an allergic reaction: a) what is prompting the underlying allergic reaction and b) can they remove it from the dog or cat’s environment?
I’m told by Dr. Gary Richter, there are really three different sources of allergens that can harm our pets: allergens in the air, in food, and in fleas. In general, fleas are the easiest of these allergens to treat; some dogs and cats have what is called flea allergic dermatitis—this means that while they will get a small localized reaction from where the flea bites them, they will also have a larger systemic reaction which causes them to itch all over their bodies. In instances such as these, the doctors simply need to get the dog or cat started on an adequate flea control medicine and the problem should dissipate.
Unfortunately, in the case of ingested and environmental (also called atopic) allergies, determining the source of the allergic reaction and removing it can be a much more difficult proposition.
Statistically speaking, environmental allergies are much more common than food allergies in animals. However, Doctor Richter explains to me that he almost always targets food allergies first for two distinct reasons. First, although food allergies are less common, they are much easier to control for. If your dog is allergic to chicken, you can easily remove that from their diet; if, however, your dog is allergic to oak pollen, you aren’t going to have much luck getting pollen out of the air.
The other reason for looking at food allergies first has to do with something called the “allergy threshold”. You can think of the allergy threshold like a tea kettle being heated to make boiling water: overtime, as more and more heat gets added, the water in a tea kettle will get closer and closer to boiling. However, until the water is at a full boil, the whistle on the pot won’t sound. In this case, the whistle blowing is analogous to an animal reaching its allergy threshold. Allergies are additive, meaning that each new allergen a pet is exposed to adds additional stress to their body’s immune system. A pet will not become symptomatic until they pass a certain threshold of allergens in their body at once, just as a kettle won’t whistle until the water reaches 212 degrees.
Targeting Foodborne Allergens
What this means is that you and your veterinarian may be able to alleviate your pet’s allergy symptoms by just removing a small portion of the total allergens which they are exposed to. For example, if 80% of a dog’s allergen exposure comes from pollen in the air around him (something we can’t control for) while only 20% comes from the food he’s eating, removing that small amount of food allergens may be enough to slip the pet beneath her allergy threshold and relieve her allergic symptoms. So, even though food allergies statistically make up a much smaller proportion of pet allergens than environmental allergies, it is still prudent to go after them first in the hopes that, by eliminating the portion of allergens which are easily controlled, you may be able to get a pet beneath her allergy threshold.
Treating for Symptoms
If the doctors at Montclair have tried to change a dog or cat’s diet and not seen an improvement in their symptoms, the next step is often to try treating the allergies symptomatically by administering a drug or supplement that decreases or minimizes their immune response to allergens. This is akin to a human taking an antihistamine when they begin to feel symptoms of their allergies acting up. Dogs and cats can also be placed on antihistamines, and there are also nutritional supplements like fish oil, a natural anti-inflammatory called duralactin, and products such as canine dermal support which may decrease itching and scratching in your pet. You should always consult your veterinarian before beginning any of these over-the-counter treatments.
For more acute cases that do not respond to the above treatments, the doctors at Montclair might prescribe a corticosteroid. These medications act as powerful anti-inflammatories but come with the possibility of severe side effects, especially when administered long term. For this reason, steroids are not a first line defense against allergies and are generally not recommended to be given over longer periods of time. When a dog or cat has reached the point where it makes sense to try using steroids, it is often prudent to also consider allergy testing.