Spring hasn’t arrived quite yet, but predictions are that this year will be a tough one for allergy sufferers. Itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing… allergies aren’t fun. And they especially aren’t fun for our pets, who can suffer from allergies to mold, pollen and dust just like humans.
Rather than sniffles, pets tend to develop allergy symptoms related to itchy skin. You can tell when this is a problem, as the animal spends an extraordinary amount of time scratching and rubbing against carpeting or furniture. Besides causing misery, the itching can provoke your pet to dig and chew at its fur and skin, resulting in sores.
“If left untreated, dogs and cats with seasonal allergies will scratch or lick themselves constantly,” says Dr. Link Welborn of the American Animal Hospital Association. “In an attempt to relieve themselves, dogs and cats often create sores that become secondary infections.”
This type of allergy in pets is called atopy, and it is becoming more common in our companion animals. Some dog breeds, including golden retrievers, terriers and bulldogs, are more susceptible than others, and the tendency to have allergies may be genetic. Females and older animals also tend to have more severe reactions. The itching seems to be most severe on a dog’s ears, feet, legs, and under the legs (“armpit” area). Cats can suffer the itching on their faces and will often have more widespread or pattern hair loss over their whole bodies.
For seasonal allergies, keeping your pet indoors and away from allergens like pollen can help. Keep your pet bathed so that allergens don’t reside on the fur, and keep the surroundings clean.
Hot spots, which is the name for areas of skin that are particularly itchy and get chewed excessively, should be clipped so that soothing lotions or cortisone creams can be applied easily. Try to keep your pet from licking or ingesting the creams, especially when first applied.
Shampoos for itchy skin, such as those with colloidal oatmeal or anti-itch medication, may provide short-term relief. Cortisones or other steroids may also help short-term, but can cause undesirable side effects and are typically not used for more than a few days.
In some cases, a veterinarian may want to do allergy testing to find out exactly what’s causing your pet’s misery. Other types of allergies, such as to fleas, may mimic the symptoms of atopy and should be ruled out first.
My grandmother’s Bichon Frise, Nikki, underwent this testing and was found to have a terrible sensitivity to dust mites. Unlike pollen, dust mites are a problem all year around. Frequent washing of her bedding in hot water helps, as do special shampoos and topical medications when the skin becomes irritated. When the dog is really suffering, she can have a cortisone shot or antihistamines.
Allergy shots are one option for dogs like Nikki, but they don’t work for all pets. They can also be slow to work, taking between six and 12 months for results. The shots do help 60 to 70 percent of suffering dogs and almost three-quarters of cats. Nikki’s vet may try the shots as the dog gets older, but for now she is not getting them.
Some pet owners are finding holistic ways to treat allergies, as well. Using these alternative therapies doesn’t rule out working with your vet, but can supplement traditional veterinary medicine for problems like allergies. For example, essential fatty acids are supplements that can help the animal’s skin and can lessen itching. These acids are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, but may take up to three weeks to begin working.
Bach’s Rescue Remedy can also be applied on hot spots with varying results. Traditional Rescue Remedy is a liquid that can be added to water, but you can also purchase a cream or a spray that can be applied topically. (I have good results with the cream for raw skin on humans and animals in my household.) Check nutrition and drug stores for the Rescue Remedy, which is also generically called five-flower essence.
No matter how you want to tackle your pet’s allergies, a vet can help rule out other problems. A quick and easy solution may be found that doesn’t involve allergy testing or shots. Flea allergies, for example, are much reduced when the pet is put on a regular treatment of Advantage or similar topical monthly pest control.