Allergies are one of the most common conditions to affect our pets. An allergic reaction occurs when the animal’s immune system “overreacts” to foreign substances (known as allergens or antigens) to which it is exposed. This “overreaction” can be expressed in different ways.
The most common reaction is skin-related, with itching and irritation. The second organ system to be affected can be the digestive system (resulting in vomiting and/or diarrhoea), and the third organ system is the respiratory system (resulting in sneezing, coughing, wheezing, asthmatic attacks and runny nose or eyes).
Pollen in the air is a common trigger for hay fever in people.
Dogs and cats can also suffer from “hay fever” but in their case they are much more prone to skin irritations, causing them to scratch, bite or lick (overgroom) to get relief. This can lead to secondary skin infections, hair loss, sores, and smelly skin.
Dogs can be seen to be licking their feet a lot, rubbing their faces, and can also shake their head and scratch at the ears, as the skin in the ear canal can feel itchy and irritated.
Pollen- or inhalant allergies, also called “Atopy”, usually start at around 2 years of age, and often occur seasonally (around spring and summer). If an allergen is present all year round or if, in time, the pet becomes allergic to more and more allergens, skin irritations can occur year-round.
The most common allergic skin diseases are flea allergy dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and food allergies.
Pets can often have more than one allergy. Therefore, if a pet has a skin condition it is important to focus the diagnosis on both allergic and non-allergic causes. Various tests, including special food trials and extremely thorough flea control and tests to rule out non-allergic causes are often needed to come to a diagnosis. Flea bite allergic animals are so sensitive that 1 flea bite per week can keep the skin irritated, so you don’t necessarily need to see fleas for this to be an issue.
Treatment options for skin allergies (if allergens can’t be avoided) aim to reduce the allergic reaction of the skin, fight the secondary infections, and support the skin.
The treatments may include antihistamines or stronger anti-inflammatory medications, antibiotic and/or antifungal treatments to combat secondary infections, shampoos, and other supportive treatments such as essential fatty acids, moisturisers, creams, etc.
If food allergies are suspected, a special food trial should be discussed with your vet. Allergen Specific Immunotherapy (or desensitisation) treatments are possible in certain cases, to be discussed with your vet.
Allergies are usually managed with a combination of treatments, to provide relief and quality of life for the pet.