The most common cause of allergic itch that we see in pets are environmental allergens. In the United States, approximately 3.6% of dogs and <1% of cats experience allergies to things in the environment. Environmental allergens are microscopic particles found in our surroundings that will trigger the immune system to overreact and attack the allergen in an effort to remove it from the body. Environmental allergens can wreak havoc on a pet causing intense itching and secondary skin and ear infections. This condition is also referred to as Atopic Allergic Dermatitis.
Environmental allergens are abundant year-round in Florida due to our warm and humid climate. These allergens are usually microscopic and inhaled by the pet. Environmental allergens can be anything from various types of tree or grass pollen to mold, dust mites or pet dander. They can be found outside and inside our homes. In some cases, pets may experience only a seasonal allergy if they are allergic to a specific type of plant that pollinates once or twice a year. In most cases, pets with environmental allergies are allergic to several allergens that are found year-round and may experience varying degrees of symptoms throughout the year.
While pets with environmental allergies can experience symptoms similar to humans such as watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing, a more troubling symptom is itching. Depending on the severity of the allergy, allergic pets will usually experience itching throughout their body but the most common places we see affected are the feet, face and ears. A common clinical sign that allergic dogs present with is frequent licking or chewing of the paws or recurrent ear infections. Cats will often present with over-grooming, especially on the abdomen. The more the pet licks, chews and scratches, the more likely they will be to give themselves a secondary skin infection with bacteria or yeast. If the itching goes on long enough, permanent inflammatory changes in the skin and ears can occur which will extend healing time and make the pet more prone to re-infection in the future.
Diagnosing environmental allergies relies on a combination of diagnostic testing, information provided from the owner about the pet’s history involving itching, and findings of a veterinary examination of the pet. It is very important to rule out other causes of itching first such as parasites such as fleas and mites (which is why it is very important to have the pet on strict monthly heartworm and flea prevention). It is also imperative to identify any secondary bacterial or yeast infection present so that this can be treated in addition to treating the allergy. In some cases, a diet trial may be recommended to rule out a food allergy.
Once an environmental allergy is suspected by the vet, a treatment plan will be developed that is catered to the pet to decrease their itching and provide comfort. Any secondary bacterial or fungal infections must be treated appropriately as these infections only perpetuate itching. The most important part of an allergic pet’s treatment plan is a staple or anchor therapy that the pet will usually stay on for life that will help decrease the severity of their allergic symptoms. For dogs, this treatment may include a daily pill called Apoquel or a monthly injection called Cytopoint. Both of these products block chemicals in the pet’s body that make them itchy which in turn will help to calm down their skin, keep them more comfortable and prevent skin and ear infections. Cats are usually treated with an immune modulating medication called Atopica that is given daily. Once initially established as an allergic pet, most patients will be put on a regimen of their anchor treatment in addition to weekly or bi-monthly medicated baths or medicated sprays. Research has also shown that daily probiotics and essential fatty acids are helpful to prevent recurrence of skin infections in allergic pets. There are also prescription diets that help fortify an allergic pet’s skin to help manage their allergies.
In some cases, these treatment options are not enough for severely allergic pets and more extensive testing may be necessary. The goal of allergy testing is to identify the specific things that the pet is allergic to and either avoid them if possible or develop a vaccine to desensitize the immune system to what triggers them. This type of advanced allergy testing is usually done by a Veterinary Dermatologist who then develops immunotherapy injections tailored to what the pet needs.
Unfortunately, many allergic pets may never be completely “normal” in that they will always have some degree of itching and break-through infections. The good news is, we have so many treatment options available to us now that can help give the pet (and owner) a great quality of life.