Vet Watch, February 2019

Allergies in pets

Late spring, summer and a good piece of autumn bring the onslaught of allergy in our pets. Allergic skin disease is probably the single most common medical problem vets will see in patients, especially dogs. Cats get their fair share of allergic issues as well. In fact, pretty much any animal with an immune system can suffer from allergies. I recently read an article on an echidna diagnosed with a severe allergy to ants and melaleuca pollen, which seemed like a particularly unkind stroke of fate! (The echidna in question was, after much long-term effort, successfully managed).

The way the immune system works and how it goes haywire is an extremely complex topic. Whole specialties in human and veterinary medicine are built around slowly understanding the immune system, and I can’t go into any details of that here. However I will give a quick run down of the main types of allergies pets may have to deal with.

1) Contact Allergies, or contact dermatitis (not always the same thing, but close enough). This would be the sort of response you would see when a pet comes in direct contact to grasses or weeds and usually occurs on the more hairless underbelly of a pet. It can vary in appearance and intensity from a mild reddening of the skin, to an angry, puffy, infected rash. It usually flares up fairly suddenly . 

2) Inhaled Allergies (atopy). Probably the most common allergy we see, and generally seasonal and chronic to varying degrees. Typically dogs with atopy have itchy faces, eyes, feet and ears. They usually have secondary infections (especially ear infections) from yeasts and bacteria that take advantage of the weakened skin barrier. Cats get a more generalised scabby response to atopy, often accompanied by overgrooming resulting in stressed, itchy, partially bald cats. Self-trauma from scratching in both species can result in severe skin damage, such as the classic hot spots seen in dogs.

3) Insect bites. These often cause a sudden onset of facial swelling and severe itching, as well a frequent appearance of raised hair patches and welts all over the body. 

4) Food Allergies. These are seen in maybe 10% of pets with chronic allergies. Usually they are year round rather than seasonal and more common in pets older than a 12 months. Food allergies are generally chronic and lower grade, but they can be very frustrating to diagnose and to treat. They can resemble inhaled allergies very closely. 

The most common foods pets are allergic to , by far, are animal proteins. Usually chicken, beef or lamb. This is because these are the most common things fed to pets, and its usually something they have been eating for a long time that triggers a response. If pets were fed Aardvark, Bilby and Narwhale regularly then these proteins would be the more common culprits. In spite of what facebook and many boutique pet food companies say, wheat and other grains very rarely cause food allergies. Sometimes food allergies can cause recurrent or chronic digestive disorders as well. 

5) Flea Allergies. We encounter less of this once very common condition now that there are excellent flea prevention products available. However, very allergic animals will break out in severe rashes and scratching all over from just one flea bite, so there’s still some regular cases seen. 

Just to make life difficult, many of these allergies can occur simultaneously in the same patient. Allergic responses are cumulative to an extent, so a chronic food allergy can lower the threshold for an acute flareup of seasonal atopy, for example. This is frustrating for all parties concerned, to put it mildly. 

Invariably, as well as trying to pin down the type of allergic response and provide a specific treatment, the consequences of secondary skin damage, infections, and behavioural issues will also need to be dealt with. This can be a challenge in itself. Some issues such as secondary yeast and bacterial infections in ears and skin are long standing, have caused chronic damage to the skin, and involve multi-resistant organisms. 

Thankfully there are a range of treatments and management options that are available for pet owners to minimise the distress of allergies. Some of these offer short-term relief, and others afford more long-term solutions. There will always be management approaches necessary (diet, external parasite control, supplements, conditioners etc) as well as medical assistance. Dealing with allergies involves a multi-pronged strategy to be given the best chance of success. 

Make sure you consult your vet early on in a flareup before more chronic damage is done or your pet has to suffer unnecessarily. The Lennox Vet Hospital staff can offer advice and assistance before things get out of hand. 

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