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Could My Pet Have Allergies? If So, What Can I Do about Them?

Pets that scratch excessively may be allergic to something. Some pets are affected at certain times of the year, while others have problems all year.

Pets may be allergic to such things as flea bites, pollens, molds, grasses, trees, wool, tobacco smoke, certain foods, and even other pets. [For the latest pollen count in your area, see the National Allergy Bureau Report Regardless of the offending agent (allergen), the main signs are scratching and chewing the skin, which may result in extensive skin damage. The damaged skin is then highly susceptible to bacterial infection.


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What Are Allergies, and How Do They Affect Dogs?

One of the most common conditions affecting dogs is allergy. In the allergic state, the dog’s immune system “overreacts” to foreign substances (allergens or antigens) to which it is exposed. These overreactions are manifested in three ways. The most common is itching of the skin, either localized (one area) or generalized (all over the dog). Another manifestation involves the respiratory system and may result in coughing, sneezing, and/or wheezing. Sometimes, there may be an associated nasal or ocular (eye) discharge. The third manifestation involves the digestive system, resulting in vomiting or diarrhea.


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Aren’t There Several Types of Allergies In Pets?

There are five known types of allergies: contact, flea, food, bacterial, and inhalant. Each of these has some common expressions in dogs and cats, and each has some unique features.


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What Is Inhalant Allergy?

The most common type of allergy is the inhalant type, also known as atopy [AT-ta-pee]. Dogs may be allergic to all of the same inhaled allergens that affect humans. These include tree pollens (cedar, ash, oak, etc.), grass pollens (especially Bermuda), weed pollens (ragweed, etc.), molds, mildew, and the house dust mite. Many of these allergies occur seasonally, such as ragweed, cedar, and grass pollens. However, others are with us all the time, such as molds, mildew, and house dust mites. About 3/4 of atopic dogs first develop signs from spring to fall.


Dogs with atopy may be genetically predisposed to the condition, and certain breeds, such as Schnauzers, Irish Setters, Boston Terriers, Scottish Terriers, West Highland White Terriers, Cairn Terriers and Wire-Haired Terriers, are more commonly affected than other breeds. Female dogs are more likely to be affected than males. Atopy usually first occurs at 1-3 years of age.


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What Happens When a Dog Inhales Something to Which he Is Allergic?

When humans inhale allergens, we express the allergy as respiratory problems. These include coughing, sneezing, a runny nose, and watery eyes. The dog’s reaction, however, usually produces severe, generalized itching. It will chew, lick, or scratch almost any area of the body, including the feet. Chewing and scratching produce hair loss and inflamed areas of the skin. Saliva will stain light colored hair, so dogs that lick excessively will have orange or reddish brown hair. This is often seen on the feet. Although most people think that itching is related to fleas, the most common cause of itching in the dog is inhalant allergy.


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What Is Causing My Dog’s Allergy?

That is not a question that can be answered easily. The itching produced by ragweed allergy is the same as that produced by oak pollen allergy. In other words, an individual animal or person can be allergic to many different things with the end result (itching) being the same. In some cases, allergy testing can make specific determinations, and sometimes an educated guess can be accurate if the itching corresponds with the blooming season of certain plants. However, it is not always necessary to know the specific allergen for treatment to be successful.


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What Is Meant by ‘Seasonal Allergy’ and ‘Year-Round Allergy’?

As the names imply, some dogs only have allergic reactions during specific periods of the year. Others will itch year round. A year round allergy occurs for two reasons. First, the allergen is present year round. This is the case for indoor dogs that are allergic to house dust mites, also known as “house dust.” Second, the dog is allergic to so many things that at least one of those allergens is present at all times.


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Can My Dog’s Seasonal Allergy Become Year-Round?

Not only is that possible, it is almost expected. As the dog ages, it usually becomes allergic to more and more things. After several years of acquiring new allergies, it reaches the point that it is constantly exposed to something to which it is allergic.


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How Is Inhalant Allergy Treated?

Treatment depends largely on the length of the dog’s allergy season and involves five approaches:


Treatment with homeopathy and other natural holistic therapies are often an effective means of controlling atopy. Omega fatty acids (“fish oils”), gamma linoleic [lin-oh-LEE-ic] acid, vitamins A, E, and Zn in conjunction with natural anti-inflammatories such as quercetin [KWER-set-tin] and bioflavonoids frequently can control symptoms.


Anti-inflammatory drugs. Anti-inflammatory therapy will dramatically block the allergic reaction in most cases and interfere with natural healing (they work by opposing the body’s attempt to heal itself). In my practice, I do not use these drugs.


If homeopathic treatment does not provide the desire immediate effect, natural antiinflammatories can be used. In addition, antihistamines combined with the other therapies are frequently very effective, though they can cause mild temporary sedation. Steroids (“cortisone”) are used most commonly in other veterinary practices. In my opinion, they should be a last resort. I typically wean these drugs in my new patientss that are already receiving steroids. combination with appropriate supplements and antihistamines. 


Steroids and supplementation are palliative and do not treat the underlying cause of the allergy. They are frequently effective however at covering up the result of the allergic state (itching).


Shampoo therapy. Many dogs are helped considerably by frequent bathing with a hypoallergenic shampoo. It has been demonstrated that some allergens may be absorbed through the skin. Frequent bathing is thought to reduce the amount of antigen exposure through this route. In addition to removing surface antigen, bathing alone will provide some temporary relief from itching and may allow the use of a lower dose of other medications. Some of the hypoallergenic shampoos incorporate fatty acids; these may be absorbed through the skin and offer a localized anti-inflammatory action. The role of the fatty acids in allergy treatment is an area of active research interest in veterinary medicine.


Antibiotics. Dogs that damage their skin by licking, chewing,and scratching are quite susceptible to bacterial infections in the skin. If this occurs, antibiotics are given in some practices until the secondary “infection” is controlled. The skin infection itself can be quite irritating and cause a dog to itch even more.


Hyposensitization. The fifth major form of allergy treatment is hyposensitization with specific antigen injections (or “allergy shots”). Once testing identifies the specific allergens, very small amounts of the antigen are injected weekly. The purpose of this therapy is to reprogram the body’s immune system. It is hoped that as time passes, the immune system will become less reactive to the problem-causing allergens. If hyposensitization appears to help the dog, injections will continue for several years. For most dogs, a realistic goal is for the itching to be significantly reduced in severity; in some dogs, itching may completely resolve. This therapeutic approach is recommended for the middle-aged or older dog that has year round itching caused by inhalant allergy.


Hyposensitization is an example of conventional medicine adopting principles of homeopathy. In this case, “Like Cures Like”.


The drawbacks of hyposensitization include:


  • Need for frequent injections (usually by the pet owner at home).
  • Cost. This is the most expensive form of treatment.
  • Age of Patient. Because many dogs develop additional allergies as they get older, young dogs may need to be retested 1-3 years later.
  • Success Rate. No more than 50 percent of dogs will have an excellent response, about 25 percent get partial to good response, and the remaining 25 percent get little or no response. The same statistics are true for people undergoing hyposensitization.
  • Food Allergies. Although tests for food allergy are available, the reliability of these tests is so low that it is not recommended at this time. A food trial remains the best diagnostic test for food allergy.
  • Time of Response. The time until apparent response may be 2-5 months, if at all.
  • Interference of Steroids. Dogs must not receive oral steroids for two weeks or injectable steroids for six weeks prior to testing; these drugs will interfere with the test result.


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My Dog Has Fleas. Couldn’t That Be Causing the Itching?

A dog with inhalant allergy will itch even if fleas are not present. However, if fleas are crawling around on your dog, the itching will increase. Although getting rid of all of your dog’s fleas will not stop the itching, it will make it much easier to control the itching successfully.


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My Dog Has a Terrible Odor. Is That Related?

There are two possible causes of odor associated with inhalant allergy. These dogs are very prone to ear infections because the ear canal is an extension of the skin. When it becomes inflamed, it is easily infected. These dogs are also likely to have seborrhea.


Sebum is the oily material normally produced in the skin. When a dog scratches, sebum production increases dramatically. This produces a musty odor. A bath will remove the odor, but it is gone for only a few hours. The key to controlling seborrhea is to stop the itching and scratching.


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The Itching Did Not Stop as Expected. What Does That Mean?

Treating allergies holistically involves finding the proper balance between diet, supplements, antihistamines and sometimes steroids. Until this is established, the itching will continue, though usually at a reduced level. In addition, other food allergies, contact sensitivities, parasitic, and metabolic causes of itching will usually not subside completely until the underlying cause is identified and eliminated or modified.


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What Is Meant by the Term ‘Flea Allergy’?

In spite of common belief, a normal dog experiences only minor skin irritation in response to flea bites. Even in the presence of dozens of fleas, there will be very little itching. On the other hand, the flea allergic dog has a severe, itch-producing reaction to flea bites. This occurs because the dog develops an allergic response to the flea’s saliva. When the dog is bitten, flea saliva is deposited in the skin. Just one bite causes intense itching.


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What Does This Reaction Do to the Dog?

The dog’s response to the intense itching is to chew, lick, or scratch. This causes hair loss and can lead to open sores or scabs on the skin, allowing a secondary bacterial infection to begin. The area most commonly involved is over the rump (just in front of the tail). This is probably because fleas find this part of the dog more desirable. Many flea allergic dogs also chew or lick the hair off of their legs.


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What is the Proper Treatment of Flea Allergy?

The most important treatment for flea allergy is to get the pet away from all fleas. Therefore, strict flea control is the backbone of successful treatment. The most effective and safest form of flea control is proper daily use of a flea comb. This fine toothed comb will catch any critters crawling on your pet and stimulate the skin to produce natural oils at the same time. Unfortunately, complete flea control is not always possible for pets that live outdoors in warm and humid climates, where a new population of fleas can hatch out every 14-21 days. Some pets can be hyposensitized to the adverse effects of flea bites. Flea saliva extract (flea antigen) is injected into the pet in tiny amounts over a prolonged period of time. This is an attempt to reprogram the pet’s immune system so it no longer over-reacts to flea bites. If successful, itching no long occurs or is less intense when the pet is bitten. However, this approach is only successful about 50-75% of the time.


When strict flea control is not possible, the other therapies previously mentioned can be used to control the itchiness. In addition, some pets develop a secondary bacterial infection in the skin. When this occurs, appropriate antibiotics must be used.


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What is Food Allergy?

A food allergy is a condition in which the body’s immune system reacts adversely to an ingredient in a food such as the protein source, or a preservative.


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What Foods Are Likely to Cause an Allergic Reaction?

Any food or food ingredient can cause an allergy. However, protein, usually from the meat source of the food, is the most likely offender. Proteins commonly found in pet foods are derived from beef, chicken, lamb, and horsemeat. Unfortunately, more and more commercial pet foods are incorporating “novel” protein sources like venison, duck, etc. This can be somewhat problematic when pursuing a food elimination trial (link to Postin article).


Pets are not likely to be born with food allergies. More commonly, they develop allergies to food products they have eaten for a long time. The allergy most frequently develops in response to the protein component of the food; for example, beef, pork, chicken, or turkey. Food allergy may produce any of the clinical signs previously discussed, including itching, digestive disorders, and respiratory distress. We recommend testing for food allergy when the clinical signs have been present for several months, when the pet has a poor response to therapy, or when a very young pet itches without other apparent causes of allergy. Testing is done with a special hypoallergenic diet, and bottled water. Because it takes at least 4 weeks for all other food products to get out of the system, the pet must eat the special diet exclusively for 4-8 weeks (or more). If positive response occurs, you will be instructed on how to proceed. If the diet is not fed exclusively, it will not be a meaningful test. We cannot overemphasize this. If any type of table food, treats or vitamins are given, these must be discontinued during the testing period. There may be problems with certain types of chewable heartworm preventative, as well. Your veterinarian will discuss this with you.


Because pets that are being tested for inhalant allergy generally itch year round, a food allergy dietary test can be performed while the inhalant test and antigen preparation are occurring.


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Isn’t a Lamb-Based Pet Food Supposed to Be Hypoallergenic?

No, although many people think it is. Several years ago there were no pet foods on the commercial market that contained lamb. A manufacturer of prescription pet foods formulated a food from lamb that was suitable for allergy testing, which will be explained below. Because of that situation, lamb-based pet food was considered “hypoallergenic.”


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How Does a Parasite Cause Ringworm?

Ringworm is a fungal skin disease known medically as dermatophytosis [der-mat-toh-fight-OH-sis]. The fungus lives on the skin surface in dead skin cells. As the fungus grows, it often spreads outward in a circular pattern; hence, the name ringworm.


Fungi can be found in soil and on animals and people. Your pet may acquire a fungal infection from any of these sources and may pass the infection along to other animals or people.


Fungal infections first appear as one or more small areas of hair loss that may be reddened or inflamed. As infection progresses, crusts form on the area of hair loss, the patches increase in number and size, and large portions of skin may become involved.


Local or total-body clipping may be necessary in long-haired animals. Cultures are often necessary to diagnose the disease and monitor the progress of treatment. Medications used in treatment include topical creams and lotions, oral medications, and dip solutions. The type of medication used often depends on the severity of disease.


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How Prevalent Is Itchiness Due to Mites (Mange)?

Demodicosis [dee-moh-dik-OH-sis], caused by a microscopic mite, is widespread among some breeds, and is sometimes serious. Demodectic mites are found in small numbers in the hair follicles of normal pets. In pets with demodicosis, however, these mites proliferate, and large numbers inhabit the skin and hair follicles. Pets may acquire mites from their mother 2-3 days after birth.


Demodicosis may involve only 1 or 2 small areas of skin (localized mange) or large areas of the body (generalized mange). Juvenile-onset demodicosis occurs in pets 3-12 months old, and the short-haired breeds are most commonly affected.


Adult-onset demodicosis generally occurs in pets more than 5 years old, and is often associated with internal disease or cancer. Some pets are genetically predisposed to the generalized form, and breeding these pets is not recommended. Demodicosis also occurs as a chronic foot infection in mature pets.


Localized demodicosis is the mildest form. Usually only a few areas of hair loss on the head or front legs occur. Most pets with the localized form recovery completely.


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Can Serious Cases of Demodicosis Be Treated Successfully?

Generalized demodicosis is serious and often difficult to treat. Large areas of the body may be affected, and often the affected areas are also infected by bacteria. In these cases, the skin is red, crusty and warm, and has many pustules. It may bleed easily and has a strong, rancid odor.


While most of these cases are curable, some can only be controlled, and periodic retreatment is necessary. Periodic rechecks and skin scrapings to test for active mites are necessary. With the generalized form, bacterial cultures from the skin may be needed to determine the most effective antibiotic.


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Are There Any Other Mites That Cause Mange?

Sarcoptes [sar-COP-tees], or sarcoptic mange, is another skin disease caused by a parasitic mite. It is highly contagious and produces intense itching, reddening of the skin, thinning of the hair and development of crusts and scabs. Bacterial skin infections commonly occur in the inflamed, irritated skin.


Sarcoptic mites burrow directly into the skin, where they deposit eggs that hatch in 3-10 days. The larvae burrow up to the skin surface to feed and molt into a nymph stage. The nymphs travel about the skin surface to feed. They molt into adults, which then mate and deposit more eggs in the skin. The entire life cycle is complete within 3 weeks.


Sarcoptic mites prefer skin with little hair, so they are most numerous on the ears, elbows, abdomen and hocks. As the disease spreads, hair is lost and eventually the mites occupy large areas of skin.


Sarcoptic mites may also infest people in close contact with infested pets. Any people in contact with your pet who develop skin problems should consult a physician.


Once a diagnosis of sarcoptes is made, other pets should not be allowed to contact your pet or its bedding until recovery is complete. These mites can infest cats and people. Though the mites do not survive off the host animal for more than a few days, you should thoroughly clean the environment, shipping crates, harnesses, collars and grooming tools.



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