"If your pet seems particularly itchy lately, you may wonder whether she’s suffering from allergies. Excessive scratching isn’t the only sign of an allergic condition, but it’s the most common; of course, itching can also indicate any number of other problems, so leave diagnosis to your veterinarian. However, by considering your pet’s signs and symptoms, you can get a good idea whether she has one of the four types of allergies: flea, food, contact or environmental allergies.
Flea bite dermatitis is the most common allergy in pets, according to Donna Spector, DVM, DACVIM, writing for Halo. This condition is a hypersensitivity to proteins or antigens in flea saliva. When a flea bites a cat or dog, a small amount of its saliva is released into her skin.
Signs and Symptoms of Flea Allergy Dermatitis in Pets
While non-allergic cats and dogs experience little or no irritation from a flea bite, those that are allergic suffer intense itching and irritation – sometimes for days – at the bite site. This occurs with even a single bite. Bites may become red or inflamed, but the most significant signs and symptoms are usually self-inflicted. Your pet is likely to chew, lick or scratch excessively at bites, often causing localized hair loss, scabbing or sores. The presence of fleas, flea eggs or flea feces along with these symptoms makes this a likely diagnosis.
Food allergies are caused by the immune system’s hypersensitivity to a protein in a food. They can manifest as either dermatological problems or gastrointestinal problems. They aren’t the same as food intolerances, which result in only as gastrointestinal symptoms/problems. This type of allergy only accounts for about 10 percent of pet allergies, notes Dr. Spector. Beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb and soy are the most common food allergens in dogs, in this order; common culprits in cats include beef, dairy and fish.
Hypersensitivity to a food can develop at any age, even to something your cat or dog has eaten for years. Typical signs and symptoms of a food allergy in pets include rash, hives and itching, especially on the face, limbs, sides of the body and anal region. Respiratory symptoms are sometimes seen, too. Diarrhea, vomiting and other gastrointestinal distress may also occur.
Environmental allergies are also called seasonal allergies, airborne allergies, inhalant allergies, atopy and atopic dermatitis. Exposure to the allergen occurs through inhalation. Common irritants include dust mites, mold, mildew, and pollens from grass, trees and weeds. Pollens cause seasonal allergies, while other environmental allergens are problematic year-round.
Signs and Symptoms of Environmental Allergies in Pets
While humans associate environmental and seasonal allergies with hayfever, companion animals are more likely to develop severe body-wide itching as the primary symptom. Excessive scratching, licking and biting can cause hair loss, injuries and infections. Inflamed ears and ear infections also occur with atopy, especially in dogs. Hayfever symptoms, such as puffy or watery eyes, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing and coughing, are occasionally present, too.
Allergic contact dermatitis is the rarest type of allergy in pets, says Dr. Spector. Chemicals that come into contact with your cat or dog’s skin are the problem allergens in these cases. Those found in or on detergents, soaps, shampoos, carpets, synthetic fibers, wool, leather, paint, petrolatum, rubber, plastic and insecticides are common triggers.
As is typical for allergies in pets, significant itching is the main symptom of contact allergies. Redness and irritation are likely on and around the site of contact with the allergen. Self-inflicted complications such as hair loss, sores, scabbing and hot spot are often seen.
The clinical signs observed by your veterinarian provide important clues as to whether your cat or dog is experiencing a flea, food, environmental or contact allergy. Your thorough accounting of symptoms helps, as well. Skin or blood tests that measure the body’s immune response to suspected allergens can confirm the diagnosis of environmental allergies.
Skin and blood testing are unreliable for food allergies, though, according to Dr. Spector. Food allergies are diagnosed with an elimination diet trial. Your veterinarian will advise you on feeding your pet a limited, hypoallergenic diet, usually for two to three months. Then, suspected foods are gradually reintroduced. You monitor your pet closely, watching for the return of allergic symptoms.
Treating Allergies in Pets
Preventing exposure to allergens is key to managing your cat or dog’s allergies. Prescribed antihistamines or corticosteroids often help control symptoms, while specially formulated shampoos or other topical therapies minimize itchiness and reduce excessive scratching. Allergy shots, which aim to desensitize your pet to an allergen with repeated exposure to minute quantities via injection, sometimes reduce or eliminate environmental allergies over time.
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