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Scratching the Surface of Pet Allergies

Ogden Nash once said that "Happiness is having a scratch for every itch"...unfortunately, when we look at Mabel and her nearly bald butt this week, I don't think that she is agreeing with the American poet!

We do know that Mabel is not alone, for what that's worth! About 20-25% of all veterinary visits involve some sort of skin issue and many of these visits revolve around allergies! What makes matters worse is that the constant scratching and licking our pets might do to relieve their itchiness can be frustrating, annoying, and has definite potential for breaking the human-animal bond!

Allergies can be quickly defined as a hypersensitivity of an organism's immune system to normally harmless substances (antigens or allergens). Most of us can either relate to or have experienced our own allergies complete with sniffling, sneezing, runny noses, and just plain miserable feelings. When we encounter these allergens, receptors for the chemical, HISTAMINE, are activated and this results in a release of the substance into the body, causing our common allergy symptoms

While our pets can be allergic to many of the same things as us, we won't often see them asking for Kleenex or wiping their noses. Dogs and cats have more histamine receptors in their skin instead of their respiratory tracts. So, when the histamine is released, the pet's natural response is to try and scratch that itch. Unfortunately, as the pet scratches, the skin can become damaged, allowing more allergen to penetrate that barrier which, in turn, releases more histamine.

What's the cause of all of this and what can we do about it??

First, a trip to your veterinarian is essential if you believe your pet is scratching more than normal or has caused damage to him or herself through excessive scratching, chewing or licking.

One of the most common causes of allergies in pets is external parasites, like fleas or certain mites (Sarcoptes mange mites or Cheyletiella mites). While you may not think your furry kids have fleas, you would be surprised how often we find signs of fleas (especially flea "dirt" or flea feces) on affected pets. The good news with this is that keeping your pets (ALL pets in the household) on parasite prevention on a monthly basis all year round can help resolve and prevent this type of issue.

But, what if it isn't fleas? We certainly didn't find any fleas on Miss Mabel or Mr. Stewie, so what else could cause itchiness? As mentioned above, environmental allergens are also a common reason for pet allergies. These could be due to pollens, dust mites, grasses, etc...just like us! These allergies are challenging to diagnose and certainly frustrating to control. People often refer to these issues as "seasonal allergies" and they can be more common in certain dog breeds, like Westies, Labradors, and Goldens. Diagnostic testing, through interdermal exposure or testing blood, can help determine possible allergens.

Finally, the possibility of food allergy must be discussed as well. Thankfully, true food allergies in our pets are rare (about 1% of all skin issues or 10% of skin issues due to allergies), despite what pet food marketers might try and tell you. Also, the vast majority of pets are allergic to beef, chicken or egg and not corn or wheat. Food allergies are NOT due to sudden food changes and can occur even if your pet has only had one type of food for his entire life. To truly diagnose a food allergy, a elimination trial must be done for 8-12 weeks. During this time, your pet can ONLY have a single protein source and single carbohydrate source. If your pet's itching starts resolving, then the gold standard is to re-try the original food and see if the symptoms return.

While it can be challenging to manage allergies, your veterinarian will have some newer and safer options to help keep your pet comfortable during "allergy season". The first thing to understand is that typical antihistamines (like Benadryl or Zyrtec) are often used for pets, but the fact is that about 2/3 of the time, the medication won't be effective in pets and it's very difficult to control itchiness once the cycle has started. Many pet owners may have seen a veterinarian use steroids, but these inexpensive medications can have long term side effects and the standard of care is moving away from trying to just mask the symptoms. Two new options include Apoquel (an oral medication that blocks certain enzymes from working, thereby stopping the itch cycle) and Cytopoint (an injection that uses monoclonal antibodies to block Interleukin 31). Both of these drugs have provided some great relief for millions of pets, including our friend Mabel!

Beyond drugs, sometimes providing a higher quality diet, a different diet or even daily rinses with plain cool water can help itchy pets find relief. Of course, like mentioned above, it's vital to keep all pets in the household on flea prevention in order to keep an infestation from setting up in your home.

Finally, in some cases, a referral to a veterinary dermatologist could be the answer to best help your furry friend. Your regular veterinarian will work with the dermatologist to find out the answers and bring some relief to your pet.


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