For millions of people, spring’s appeal is hampered by seasonal allergies, and pets are susceptible to this problematic condition, as well. Seasonal allergies, also known as atopy, are common in pets, affecting about 10% to 15% of cats and dogs. While most humans who suffer from seasonal allergies experience itchy eyes, sinus congestion, and a runny nose, allergic pets typically exhibit skin disease. Keep reading to learn about seasonal allergies in pets and how you can help your itchy four-legged friend.
Overview of seasonal allergies in pets
Allergic pets seem genetically predisposed to develop itchy, inflamed skin triggered by environmental allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, mold, and grass. The complex disease process involves multiple organ systems, including the skin, immune system, and nervous system. Environmental allergens penetrate the skin and travel to the lymph nodes to activate the release of inflammatory cells, which stimulate nerves to promote inflammation and itching. Breeds at increased risk include:
- Dogs — Dalmatian, golden retriever, West Highland terrier, Shar Pei, Labrador retriever, Cairn terrier, Lhasa apso, shih tzu, boxer, and pug
- Cats — Abyssinians, Devon rex, and domestic shorthaired cats
Signs of seasonal allergies in pets
Signs commonly observed in pets who have seasonal allergies include:
- Itching — Most pets are extremely itchy, and they scratch, bite, and rub excessively.
- Skin lesions — The constant scratching can lead to skin excoriations and secondary skin infections.
- Hair loss — Allergy-induced itching can lead to hair loss.
- Paw licking — Paws are commonly affected, and pets frequently lick their paws excessively.
- Scooting or licking the anal region — The area under the tail is also commonly affected, and pets may scoot or lick their anal region.
- Ear infections — Pets with seasonal allergies are at higher risk for ear infections, so an allergy may be contributing to your pet’s chronic ear infection.
- Respiratory signs — Respiratory signs, such as difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing, are seen in some pets and especially in cats.
Diagnosis of seasonal allergies in pets
No definitive test is available to diagnose seasonal allergies. Pets can experience skin issues for many reasons, such as flea bite dermatitis, food allergies, and secondary infections. Features that point toward seasonal allergies include:
- Early onset — Dogs typically develop seasonal allergy signs between 1 and 3 years of age, but do not usually develop food allergies until around 5 to 6 years of age. Age of onset isn’t as reliable a sign in cats as dogs.
- Particular body parts involved — Seasonal allergies can cause itchiness and skin lesions anywhere on the pet’s body. The most commonly affected areas include the paws, ear flaps, areas around eyes and mouth, armpits, abdomen, and anal region.
- Seasonality — Seasonal allergies should be suspected when skin disease occurs only during particular seasons.
- Lower back not involved — Itching and hair loss on the lower back typically indicate flea bite dermatitis.
- Chronic or recurring yeast infections — Seasonal allergies increase a pet’s risk for skin and ear infections. Yeast normally lives on the skin surface, but when allergies cause changes to the skin’s microenvironment, the yeast proliferates and leads to infection.
- Responsive to steroids — Itching associated with seasonal allergies typically responds well to steroid treatment. Food allergies have a variable response to steroids.
You may wonder why your veterinarian doesn’t allergy test to diagnose your pet’s condition. They do not perform these tests until a pet has been diagnosed with seasonal allergies to help determine the allergens that trigger their reaction.
Treatment of seasonal allergies in pets
Seasonal allergies can be difficult to manage, and each pet is different and requires a specifically tailored treatment protocol. A multimodal approach is typically most effective, and potential seasonal allergy treatments include:
- Flea control — Pets with seasonal allergies are at higher risk for flea bite dermatitis, and year-round flea control is imperative.
- Allergen source removal — If possible, the allergen causing your pet’s reaction, such as dust mites or pollen, should be removed. Recommendations include:
- Avoiding stuffed toys that can collect dust and other allergens
- Dusting and vacuuming frequently
- Removing your pet from the area when you dust or vacuum
- Using an air filter system
- Minimizing houseplants
- Keeping your pet inside when mowing the lawn
- Bathing — Weekly bathing in luke-warm water using a calming shampoo can remove allergens from your pet’s skin and coat and reduce skin irritation and itching. Allow at least 10 minutes of skin contact when using a medicated shampoo, because premature rinsing doesn’t allow proper penetration and hinders the therapeutic benefits. Over-bathing can dry out the skin, creating more problems, so wiping your pet’s coat with a wet cloth is recommended between baths.
- Steroids — Steroids are often used to control an acute flare, but these medications have negative side-effects and should not be used long-term or in high doses.
- Antihistamines — Antihistamines are frequently used in human medicine to address allergies, but they aren’t really effective in pets. However, they may be helpful when combined with other products.
- Anti-itch medications — Several anti-itch medications on the market may help alleviate your pet’s distress. Your veterinarian will determine the best product for your pet.
- Antimicrobials — Secondary skin infections exacerbate itchiness, and antibiotics or antifungals may be necessary to resolve the infection.
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation — Omega-3 fatty acid supplements can disrupt inflammatory chemical production and make the skin less reactive to allergens. These supplements take about six weeks to build up in the body before they make a difference, and they aren’t useful for acute flares.
- Hyposensitization — The gold standard treatment for seasonal allergies is hyposensitization therapy (i.e., allergy shots). The pet receives gradually increasing doses of allergen to help desensitize them to the substance. The allergens used are based on information learned from allergy testing. Allergy shots require about 6 to 12 months to be effective, but most pets experience significant improvement.
If your pet is scratching excessively, seek veterinary care as soon as possible to determine what is causing the problem and to find the best treatment strategy to help your itchy pet.