Modern Medicine, Old-Fashioned Care

May 3, 2013 | General Health

Stop the Scratching: Pet Allergies and Treatment Options

dog-licking-back-paw-300x225People aren’t the only ones who experience seasonal allergies, reactions to certain foods or skin irritations. Dogs and cats suffer too. Excessive licking and scratching by our animals aren’t usual behaviors for our pets; those behaviors are extreme reactions to a severe irritation.


Skin allergies are the most common reason for a visit to the veterinary office.  There are four common types of pet allergies:

  • Atopy is the most common type of allergy among pets involving airborne allergens that are usually seasonal like pollen, ragweed, mold and dust mites. Cigarette smoke and perfumes are also potential triggers for an allergic reaction.
  • Contact dermatitis is a reaction to environmental allergens like cleaners, shampoos, fabrics including carpets, and materials such as plastics when they have direct contact with the skin.
  • Flea allergy dermatitis is a severe reaction to fleas which can be managed through flea prevention and treatment.
  • Food allergies can cause skin symptoms as well as unpleasant reactions, such as gastrointestinal problems and frequent bowel movements, to trigger foods like chicken or wheat. About 10 to 15 percent of allergies diagnosed in pets are related to food and associated with another allergy type such as atopy.


Reactions to the various allergens are similar among the allergy types and range from mild to severe. If your pet experiences any of these symptoms, it’s recommended to seek consultation with a veterinarian for immediate treatment, testing, and to develop a plan of prevention and management. 

  • Inflammation in the ears and recurring infections
  • Extreme scratching
  • Sneezing
  • Rubbing of the face and ears against furniture or along the carpet
  • Itchy eyes and skin irritation around the eyes
  • Licking and chewing of the feet or swollen pads
  • Constant licking, especially the around the groin area
  • Reddish skin, frequent blisters and scabs
  • Hot spots on the skin and recurring skin infections
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Gastrointestinal problems including vomiting and diarrhea usually associated with food allergies
  • Areas of discolored hair or balding spots due to excessive licking
  • Extreme reactions include hair loss, facial swelling and anaphylaxis—a rare but immediate, life-threatening allergic reaction to an allergen causing respiratory or cardiac failure, resulting in death if not treated quickly with epinephrine and emergency medical attention.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Dogs and cats can develop allergies at any time during their life. There is no cure for allergies—only avoidance of the allergens as well as management of symptoms and associated infections.

“Allergies can be a chronic and debilitating condition for pets.  Identification of allergic triggers and treatment to reduce allergen exposure and ameliorate symptoms can bring much needed relief to a suffering pet,” added Dr. Laura Weis of Doylestown Veterinary Hospital.

Proper treatment begins with a complete history and an examination by a veterinarian. Skin and blood tests may be necessary to determine a cause or to confirm an ear or skin infection. Food allergies usually require a special prescription diet, then slowing adding back eliminated ingredients to discover which ones cause a reaction. In extreme cases, a referral to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist may be recommended for further diagnostic testing. Talk to your veterinarian about which treatment options are the most effective for your pet’s allergy.

Treatments include:

  • Flea prevention treatments for flea allergy dermatitis keep skin problems under control.
  • Avoidance of environmental triggers by keeping your dog or cat away from certain carpets, furniture, types of bedding or food dishes. Regular washing of the bedding and vacuuming reduces exposure to dust mites and other environmental allergens.
  • Medicated shampoos and topical treatments calm the skin and provide immediate relief and protection of the skin.
  • Prescription medicines such as antihistamines, antibiotics and steroids control more severe reactions and symptoms.
  • Dietary restrictions and prescription foods in the management of food allergies and associated medical conditions in reaction to allergens.
  • Desensitization injections (“allergy shots”) may help develop tolerance to allergens.

Consult with your veterinarian if your dog is showing any symptoms of an allergy. Proper diagnosis and treatment can bring relief to a suffering pet.

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