Pet Allergies

By Dr. Juan Castro

An allergy is a disease that happens when the immune system reacts to an everyday substance (allergen). Allergens can be natural or man-made and effect people and pets.

Some common allergens include:

  • Certain foods
  • Mold
  • Pollen
  • Grass
  • Dust and dust mites
  • Dander
  • Fabrics
  • Shampoos
  • Cleaning products
  • Perfumes
  • Fleas
  • Some plastics/rubber
  • Cigarette smoke

Allergens can be inhaled, ingested, or come in direct contact with the skin. Even though these substances are common and harmless for most of our pets, in certain individuals they can cause a reaction that is unpleasant, sometimes serious, and in a few cases even fatal.

There is a genetic predisposition to develop allergies. In pets reactions typically start between one and four years of age, after continued exposure to the offending substance.

Like in people, there is no really cure for allergies, and the goal is to minimize the signs of allergies and make pets comfortable. Unlike people, most allergies in pets manifest as skin problems.

Most common symptoms of allergies include:

  • Scratching
  • Licking or excessive grooming
  • Skin redness, scabs
  • Hair loss
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Itchy tail/rectal area

Less common – sneezing, coughing, vomiting, diarrhea

Diagnosing allergies can be challenging and requires some detective work, especially as other medical conditions can show similar symptoms. Diagnoses can be made by your regular vet or a pet dermatologist based on signs, a pet’s history, the season when symptoms are present, lab tests, and ruling out other diseases that can cause similar symptoms. In certain cases a food trial may be indicated.

If food allergy is suspected, a food trial will be recommended and the doctor will discuss the best food options. During the trial it is very important that you avoid giving your pet treats and people food, since even small amounts of an allergen can trigger a reaction. Food trials generally last 8-12 weeks, and if symptoms are resolved, other foods can be gradually reintroduced while the pet is monitored closely for any reaction.

The best way to treat allergies is to avoid contact with allergens, but since they are usually very common substances that is easier said than done. Still contact can be decreased by cleaning, dusting, vacuuming, and sometimes weekly bathing with specific shampoos recommended by your veterinarian.

In some cases your pet’s doctor will also recommend antihistamines, steroids, or other immune modulating drugs, fatty acid supplements, and medicated shampoos and/or conditioners.

If through allergy testing the exact allergen or allergens that your pet is allergic to are discovered, and it is a substance too common in the environment to avoid, immunotherapy or allergic shots will be used.

If you suspect allergies or see any of the symptoms described, consult with your veterinarian.

Dr. Juan Castro is a veterinarian with Banfield Pet Hospital located in Falls Church, VA. You can reach him at 703-237-5610 or by email at [email protected].


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