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The Allergic Pet

Allergies in humans usually affect the respiratory system; runny nose, congestion and sneezing. Dogs and cats, on the contrary, show allergies primarily through their skin through scratching, chewing and licking. Skin issues often benefit from a good diet, fish oil and probiotics. But when a pet has recurring itchiness or inflammation, allergies are the most likely culprit.

Pets can be allergic to anything: flea saliva, dust mites, food products and pollen are common examples. Allergies to one thing build on allergies to another to reach the itching threshold. To make matters worse, allergic pets are susceptible to various bacteria and yeast infections which compound itchiness and inflammation.

Avoidance of allergens, when possible, is the best treatment. Determining what to avoid is complicated. We start the process of identification with a flea comb. If a pet has fleas and signs of skin allergies, it’s presumed to be a primary flea issue until proven otherwise; when the same pet is flea-free and remains itchy. Other pests, like mange, are ruled out with testing.

Once proven to be bug- and ringworm-free, the next step is a food trial. Pets are placed on a rigid diet containing only one protein that they have never had and one carbohydrate. The trial takes two months in cats and three months in dogs. Some pets respond within a week, others take longer. Pets experiencing improvement at the end of the trial are reintroduced to their original diet. Food allergy is only confirmed if the original food recreates the skin problem. Determining exactly which food items are allergens requires a tedious trial of one item (like chicken) at a time with the full food trial diet taking place in between each one. Sadly, blood tests for food allergens have been proven ineffective. Some clients send out a saliva test, but I have not found this useful either.

Pets showing no improvement after removing pests, contact allergens and food allergens are difficult to treat. These pets often have an abnormality of the skin that allows allergens to penetrate and interact with the immune system. We do what we can to minimize contact. Decreasing humidity can minimize mold pollens. Moist dusting can minimize dust mite allergens.  Air conditioning minimizes tree pollen. Minimization, though helpful, is not the same as elimination so pets often require veterinary intervention.

Veterinarians can help minimize the itchy inflammation. We can even eliminate these signs for long stretches of time. But there is no cure. Clients can choose from three major options: skin testing and allergy desensitization shots, alternative medicine and/or conventional therapies. Alternative medicine offers herbs, acupuncture and other modalities applied based upon the patient’s specific signs. The big four conventional anti-itch therapies are prednisone, Atopica, Apoquel and Cytopoint.

There are strong proponents of all kinds of allergy or anti-itch therapies, some more vocal than others. A winning treatment eliminates the need for other options. Thus, the more therapies out there for any given condition, the less likely we have a silver bullet “cure”. Allergic dermatitis is a stellar example. Regardless of treatment paths, flare-ups and secondary infections happen periodically. In this regard, pet allergies mimic human allergies. They are a chronic, long-term problem requiring diligence and patience.

Dr. Lori Cobb, VMD, CVA,has been practicing alternative medicine since 2000. She often utilizes acupuncture, Chinese herbs, spinal manipulation and conventional medicine at Pathways to Wellness, located at 1485 Rte. 38, in Hainesport, N.J. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 609-267-2111 or visit VeterinaryAlternativeMedicine.com.

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