Spring allergies are in full swing. Pollen is in the air, on our clothes, and coating our vehicles, and allergy sufferers far and wide are once again feeling the itchy, irritating effects.
We frequently receive the same question from pet owners who are dealing with their own allergy issues at this time of year: Do dogs and cats get seasonal allergies like we do?
“The answer is a resounding ‘Yes’,” says Doylestown Veterinary Hospital’s Dr. Lois Palin, VMD. “Dogs and cats definitely develop seasonal allergies, which we would refer to as atopy or atopic dermatitis.”
What is The Difference?
In humans, allergies are inhaled and cause the familiar respiratory symptoms many of us know all too well: sneezing, sniffling, coughing, and red, watery eyes.
With our pets, “in addition to inhaling the allergens – the allergens also go through their skin,” says Dr. Palin. “When a dog or a cat has allergies, proteins from the allergens stimulate inflammatory cells which can cause itching, with secondary infections and misery.”
For this reason, she says, the symptom most commonly seen in dogs and cats is itchy skin and not the respiratory irritation most humans suffer.
What to Look For
Atopic dermatitis can cause obsessive scratching in dogs.
Commonly affected areas include:
- Around the mouth and eyes
- The ears
- The armpits
- The abdomen
- The legs, particularly the feet
- The anus
Cats tend to follow a pattern that is slightly less distinct, says Dr. Palin. “They will frequently get itchy around their head and neck. You can often see it around their eyes, and down on their abdomen – a lot of times at their tail base.”
Cats – it may come as no surprise – “don’t follow the rules quite as strictly as dogs do.”
Ruling Out Other Culprits
What makes diagnosing seasonal allergies in our pets tricky is that food allergies can cause the same symptoms.
“There isn’t a test, per se,” to determine the root cause, says Dr. Palin. “For us to differentiate between food and seasonal allergies, what we look at is the history of the patient, as well as the physical exam findings, and other factors including age.”
Dogs, for instance, start to show signs of atopy between 1-3 years of age, as opposed to a food allergy that tends to manifest either before 6 months or over 5-6 years of age.
Additional diagnostic measures vets rely on include testing various medications to see if your pet responds.
“When seasonal allergies are at play, dogs and cats often respond very well to steroids or other drugs that suppress the hyper immune response,” Dr. Palin says. While steroids are not something professionals want to resort to all of the time, they can help to determine if the cause is environmental as opposed to food.
Veterinarians also look to the areas of the body primarily affected. “Is it the feet? The ears? The armpits? We are also always looking to see if there is a distinct seasonality to the symptoms. Do they occur every spring – or August when the ragweed comes out?”
The good news is that once the cause of the itching and scratching is determined, there are multiple roads to relief, Dr. Palin says.
Just as with people, one option for seasonal allergy relief in our pets is allergy shots. The process, known as hypo-sensitization, includes skin tests in which small amounts of allergens are injected under the skin. A dermatologist can then determine what the dog is allergic to. The idea, Dr. Palin says, is to develop a serum that can be routinely injected to reduce flare-ups. Sublingual application – under the tongue – is also an option. Frequent treatments are then set up to help a dog or cat’s immune system build resistance to the triggering offense.
This route takes approximately 8-12 months to reach full effectiveness, but “it works in about 60 to 70 percent of animals,” she says.
Other medicinal treatments are also available:
- Apoquel® is a medication that targets the inflammation and swiftly stops the itch without side effects. It is only approved for dogs, though.
- Another, Cytopoint®, is a monoclonal antibody treatment for dogs that reduces the clinical signs associated with allergies by targeting and neutralizing the cytokine i31, which is responsible for that itch your dog just can’t seem to scratch. “It’s the key protein that is responsible for sending signals to a dog’s brain that says, ‘Something itches,’” Dr. Palin says. Effects are normally seen within 6-12 weeks, with very few side effects.
- Atopica® has been on the market for many years and was initially used to prevent organ rejection in humans who had transplants. “We’ve been using it in veterinary medicine because it suppresses the immune system politely,” says Dr. Palin. “And both dogs and cats can take it.”
- Antihistamines, too, can be used in both dogs and cats, but they are typically effective only 10-30 percent of the time. “We’re most likely to add this on with other treatments as an adjunct,” Dr. Palin says.
- Omega 3 fatty acids are also frequently paired with primary treatment, as they reduce inflammation.
- Again, corticoid steroids are incredibly effective for both dogs and cats, Dr. Palin says. They are effective 95 percent of the time. However, long-term reactions and side effects are a concern with steroid usage in dogs, whereas cats tolerate them much better. For that reason, corticoid steroids are often used in feline patients, once the lowest effective dosage is found that can keep the animal comfortable.
- Topical treatments, whether steroidal or antihistamine-based, can also be used to spot treat particularly aggravated areas, while oatmeal or moisturizing shampoo therapies can help smooth the skin.
Other Things to Consider
When treating for allergies, Dr. Palin says, “we’ll often find that pets will develop secondary bacterial skin infections. They can develop yeast infections of the skin. So, we always need to address these infections and get those squared away.”
Allergies, she says, tend to follow very clear breed predispositions in dogs.
The breeds most commonly affected include Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Boxers, Pugs, West Highland White Terriers, Dalmatians, Shar-Peis, Lhasa-Apsos, Shih Tzus, and Pit Bulls.
Still, the statistic is that anywhere between 10 to 20 percent of all dogs have atopic dermatitis.
So, do dogs and cats get seasonal allergies like we do?
But, just like an allergic itch, there’s something more beneath the surface.
“It is something everyone should consult their veterinarian for because it is very confusing. It could be a food allergy, and that’s just addressed in a whole different way,” Dr. Palin says. “We also always want to make sure it’s not something like a flea allergy… You always want to make sure that your pet is being treated with a good flea and tick product, and that all of the other animals in the house are, as well. That way you won’t have anything else complicating the diagnosis.”