It is not widely known that dogs and cats can suffer from allergies just like us humans. Itchy skin is often more than just an annoyance. Severe itching is distracting and diminishes a pet’s quality of life. Raw, bald patches, rashes and large areas of hair loss are unfortunate markers of discomfort, for which a cause should be sought and dealt with. Many of us may dismiss these as signs of having sensitive skin. However, it is important to speak with your vet if you notice these signs as many furbabies showing these signs have an underlying skin allergy(ies) that can be managed.
There are four main allergies in dogs and cats: flea bite, diet, contact and atopy.
1. Flea Bite Allergy
Flea bite allergy is different from flea infestation. Some animals are extremely sensitive to certain proteins in the flea saliva, which the flea injects into your furbaby’s skin when feeding. It only takes ONE flea to bite ONCE for them to develop a reaction. It is worth noting that flea prevention will kill off any flea that feeds on your pet but will not repel a flea from jumping onto your pet, biting your pet and injecting its saliva into your pet to cause an allergic reaction.
Signs to watch out for: The most commonly affected places are on the head, face, and neck, thighs, umbilical area or at the base of the tail. Pets with flea allergy dermatitis are very itchy; suffer from redness and often lose hair on the affected areas.
How to manage: 95% of fleas live in the environment and once established in your house, is very difficult to eliminate. The only way to treat a flea bite allergy is by completely preventing a flea bite. This means removing fleas from your environment and your pet. Good flea prevention goes a long way in preventing flare-ups. Flea prevention like Nexgard Spectra kills the fleas as they suck on your furbaby’s blood containing the flea prevention, thus preventing infestations on your pet and your home. It is important that all your other animals are also on flea prevention. Remove fleas from your house by vacuuming all the rugs, cracks, cushioned furniture and dark corners. Wash your furbaby’s bedding in hot soapy water and dry them under the sun.
2. Food Allergy
Our pets eat a variety of proteins. Some animals’ immune systems may be triggered by certain types of protein, resulting in inflammation. The resulting inflammation may target the gastrointestinal tract or other organ systems. In animals, food allergies can develop at any point in their lives (i.e. your furbaby can develop an allergy to chicken at age four even though they have been eating this with no issues for their entire life).
To determine whether or not your pet has food allergy, a hypoallergenic diet or a new protein (novel) is fed for 6 to 8 weeks. If it is a food allergy, you should start seeing some improvements in their skin after 2-3 weeks. After this period, their old diet is reintroduced and if itching starts again (this is known as a rechallenge phase), a food allergy is diagnosed. Options for the food trial include:
- Hypoallergenic diet e.g. Royal Canin Anallergenic
- Novel protein eg. Prime 100 Sk-D Kangaroo and Pumpkin
It is important that NO OTHER FOOD including medication, treats, table scrap or edible chew toy (such as raw hide and bones) is given during the diet trial.
Signs to watch out for: The most commonly affected areas are the neck, head, ears and around the anus. Food allergies are usually non-seasonal. In dogs and cats, food allergies may not present with gastrointestinal signs.
How to manage: Once we have diagnosed food allergies using a food trial and rechallenge phase, we need to figure out what protein(s) is triggering the allergy response. First, begin by feeding the hypoallergenic diet or novel protein diet for at least 4 weeks. Then, introduce one protein source at a time each week, starting with the protein source that is less likely to cause an allergic response (i.e. a novel protein like crocodile meat). If your furbaby starts itching after introducing chicken, then your furbaby is most likely allergic to chicken. To manage food allergy, prevent feeding the protein source that they are allergic to, sticking to only the hypoallergenic diet and the protein source that their skin tolerates well.
3. Contact allergy
Contact allergy is the result of an irritating substance physically touching the skin. The most common irritant is grass and weeds including wandering jew, clover and kikuyu. However, anything from carpet/ bedding material to shampoo can cause contact allergy. Both dogs and cats can suffer from it and it can develop at any age.
Signs to watch out for: Pets suffering from contact allergy most likely have rashes and/or bumps (welts) on the skin that comes in contact with the ground; chin, neck, chest, abdomen, rear end, tail and on the paws. Other common symptoms include swelling and severe itching.
How to manage: When contact allergy is suspected, putting a physical barrier such as a T-shirt and shoes can reduce the skin to allergen contact and reduce the itch. Rinsing your dog off or using dog wipes to clean your dog after going for a walk may also help reduce the clinical signs. If possible, try and figure out a pattern and what is making your furbaby itchy, then avoid those potential irritants (i.e. if your furbaby is always itchy after walking on the grass in this particular area, try and avoid walking your furbaby there). Sometimes, your furbaby’s contact allergy may be a once off event and you may never get to figure out what their skin had responded to.
4. Atopic dermatitis (Atopy)
The exact manner in which atopy develops is unknown. It is thought that atopy is a result of a malfunctioning skin barrier and also the complex interaction between allergens and the animals’ own immunity. Due to its complex nature, we have written a separate blog focusing on atopic dermatitis. You can read more about this blog here.
Animals with atopic dermatitis can react to substances like pollen, mould spores, dust mites, cleaning products, perfumes, cigarette smokes and diffusers. Some breeds are more predisposed to developing atopy allergies.
Unfortunately, there is no single test that diagnoses atopy. Diagnosis of atopy is made through a combination of: clinical history, physical examination as well as elimination of infection and other causes of allergy such as flea bite allergy, contact allergy and food allergy.
Signs to watch out for: In dogs, atopy usually produces a seasonal itchiness. After several years, the duration of the itchy period usually extends. Ultimately, the dog can be itchy nearly all year round in 80% of cases. Common areas affected are the face, ears, feet, axillae, abdomen and the region around the anus. Whereas in cats, unfortunately, seasonality is not nearly as reliable a feature and therefore, much harder to diagnose. Atopy in cats are usually seen as large patches of hair loss, small scabs and/or face and ear itching. Their feet, abdomen and region around the anus can also be affected.
How to manage: Mild forms can usually be managed using medicated shampoo and conditioner. Some furbabies may also respond to antihistamines during flare ups. For more severe itching, an anti-itch injection and oral tablets may be utilised in conjunction with topical medication and antihistamines. Omega 3 and Omega 6 supplements long-term may also help with skin barrier repair and provide anti-inflammatory effects.
Trying to determine which type of skin allergies your pet may experience can take a lot of time and commitment. To complicate things, some furbaby may have one or more types of skin allergy. If you think that your furbaby has skin allergies, have a chat with your veterinarian as soon as possible so we can help you formulate the best plan going forward. Skin allergies cannot be treated but can be managed. Itchy skin can be very uncomfortable and frustrating for both your furbaby and you! With patience and commitment, your furbaby’s quality of life will drastically improve once we have formulated a plan to keep their skin allergies under control.