Allergies could be reason for pet scratching | All About Pets

Welcome back to Buckley Veterinary Hospital’s monthly pet care column. With warmer weather on the horizon and the allergies than come with seasonal changes, we are touching on allergies that may affect your furry family members.

The information in this piece is provided to you in part by Pet Health Network.

Just as allergies are increasing among humans, veterinarians are seeing significant increases in allergies in pets. Interestingly, the symptoms of canine and feline allergies cause different symptoms than typical “hay fever” – known clinically as allergic rhinitis in people. While people sneeze and wheeze, pets tend to itch and scratch.

Allergies can be divided into three main categories: flea allergy, environmental allergies (atopic dermatitis) and food allergy. Although flea allergy and environmental allergies are most common, often pets can have multiple allergies so a thorough evaluation by your veterinarian or a veterinary dermatologist is recommended.

Flea allergy

Flea allergy is caused by an allergic reaction to flea saliva. Pets are exposed to flea saliva when bitten by fleas, and it doesn’t take many bites to cause an allergic reaction. Pets with flea allergy typically develop itching over their backs, legs, bellies and tail. This condition is known as flea allergy dermatitis. The itching and allergic reaction can cause development of “hot spots” and secondary bacterial infections.

Diagnosis is made based on the pattern of itching, which your veterinarian can help to identify. In many cases (but not all) there will be visual evidence of fleas such as flea “dirt” (flea feces appearing as black specks). However, visual evidence of fleas is not always present as fleas spend the majority of their lives off of the pet and fleas can be removed in the process of scratching and grooming by the pet.  Treatment includes preventing exposure to fleas in your pet’s environment in combination with strict flea prevention methods.

Environmental allergies (atopic dermatitis)

Environmental allergies include both indoor allergens (house dust mites, molds) and outdoor allergens (pollen, weeds, grasses, trees). These are the same allergens that cause hay fever in people. When concentrations of these airborne allergens increase, it can trigger itching and secondary ear and skin infections in some dogs. Certain breeds of dogs appear more likely to develop these types of allergies, including many terrier breeds, golden retrievers, Labradors and share pies.

Symptoms can be seasonal or nonseasonal, depending on what specific allergens are bothering your pet. Facial rubbing and foot licking are the most common types of itching seen; repeated ear and skin infections are common. Diagnosis is made based on the pattern of itching and eliminating all other causes of itching (bacteria and yeast infections, food allergy, flea allergy and other parasitic infections like lice and mites).

Unfortunately, there is no cure for environmental allergies and therapy for this disease is lifelong. However, symptoms are highly manageable. Milder cases are often controlled with antihistamines and topical therapy alone. In more severe cases, your veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist may recommend allergy testing (skin or blood testing) which can be used to identify specific allergens to which your pet is reacting.

Allergy injections given over time can then help reduce your pet’s sensitivity to these allergens.  Because this therapy can require six to 12 months for benefits it is often combined with other anti-itch therapies (drugs, topical shampoos, rinses and sprays) to help keep your furry family member happy and comfortable.

Food allergy

Although food allergy is the least common allergy in pets, it can mimic other allergies so it is important to eliminate it as a cause of itching in pets with nonseasonal allergy symptoms. In some dogs and cats it can also cause gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea). As with other types of allergy, itching with ear and skin infections are common.

The only way for your veterinarian to diagnose food allergies is through a strict hypoallergenic dietary trial for eight to 12 weeks. Protein sources are the most common food allergens. Therefore, novel protein diets are most often recommended as they contain unique protein sources (rabbit, venison and duck-based diets) to which your pet has not been exposed to in the past. Prescription diets are preferred because these diets are highly purified and not contaminated with other protein sources (like beef or chicken) which can occur under less strict manufacturing processes. Once food allergens are identified, control is through strict avoidance of these ingredients.

What to watch for

Consider speaking with your veterinarian about allergies if your pet suffers from:

Seasonal or non-seasonal itching, licking, scratching, rubbing

Foot licking, face rubbing/scratching

Rashes or patchy areas of redness

Recurrent ear infections or head shaking

Recurrent skin infections

Patchy hair loss

Sneezing, coughing, and wheezing – especially if the pet has asthma

Itchy, runny eyes

Ear infections

Vomiting or diarrhea

Snoring caused by an inflamed throat

Paw chewing or swollen, sensitive paws

There are a variety of allergens that cause these symptoms:

Pollen, grass, plants, mold, mildew, and other organic substances


Perfumes and colognes

Fleas or flea-control products

Household cleaning products

Prescription drugs

Some cat litters

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