Allergies in pets are a common occurrence, but myths abound about these conditions. Knowing the facts about pet allergies can help you provide your affected pet with the appropriate treatment. Our team at Lebanon Animal Hospital wants to help by debunking some common myths about allergies in pets.
#1 Myth: Pets exhibit allergies similar to humans
Fact: Signs such as sneezing and watery eyes are not commonly seen in allergic pets, who mostly experience excessively itchy skin, with signs that typically include skin lesions, hair loss, and continuous scratching, chewing, licking, and rubbing. Chronic ear infections are also seen frequently in allergic pets. Some pets with food allergies experience gastrointestinal signs, such as diarrhea or chronic gas, but itchy skin is the most common manifestation.
#2 Myth: Food allergies are common in pets
Fact: Many pet owners believe that food allergies are common in pets, but only about 0.2% of dogs and 0.1% of cats are actually allergic to an ingredient in their food. The most common allergy in pets is flea bite hypersensitivity, where the pet is allergic to the flea’s saliva, and a bite from a single flea causes an extreme allergic reaction. Flea bites are typically seen on the pet’s abdomen and groin, and your pet may lose their hair at their tail base. Your pet’s signs can be resolved only through complete eradication of the fleas from their coat and environment, and they should be placed on year-round flea prevention medication to prevent a recurrence.
#3 Myth: Fleas must be found to diagnose a flea allergy
Fact: Because most allergic pets groom excessively, they often remove all fleas from their coat, so you should also inspect your pet and their bedding for flea dirt. The tiny black flecks are flea feces, and finding flea dirt on your pet with excessively itchy skin indicates a flea allergy.
#4 Myth: Food allergies can be managed by switching your pet to a grain-free diet
Fact: Pets affected by food allergies are most commonly allergic to a protein source, such as beef, dairy, chicken, or eggs, which means that grain-free diets are as likely to cause a reaction as other diets, if a protein is the cause of your pet’s allergy. The only way to definitively determine what is causing your pet’s allergy is a dietary elimination trial that involves feeding a diet that contains only ingredients they’ve never eaten. You can also use a hydrolyzed diet, where the protein source is broken down to such small particles that the immune system does not recognize them as a threat. Your pet will need to stay on the trial diet for at least six to eight weeks, and should their signs resolve while on the trial, a food allergy will be suspected, although they will need to go back on their regular diet to see if their signs return. If their signs return, a food allergy will be diagnosed, they will be returned to the trial diet, and challenged with ingredients from their original diet to determine the cause of their reaction.
#5 Myth: Switching your pet’s food frequently will prevent a food allergy
Fact: Frequently switching your pet’s food won’t prevent them from developing a food allergy, and the practice may expose them to an allergen that causes a reaction. In addition, frequently switching your pet’s food can lead to gastrointestinal issues.
#6 Myth: Allergy testing can determine what is causing your pet’s allergies
Fact: Allergy testing is used for pets affected by environmental allergies (i.e., atopy). When a flea allergy is ruled out, and the pet’s signs improve with symptomatic treatment, atopy is suspected, and intradermal skin tests or blood tests are then used to determine the allergens causing your pet’s reaction. Your veterinarian will use this information to formulate hyposensitization therapy to manage your pet’s atopy. Therapy will include allergy shots, and incremental dosages of the causative allergens to help desensitize your pet to the substances. Most pets must remain on the allergy shots for their lifetime, and improve in up to 75% of cases.
#7 Myth: Pet allergies can be managed using steroids
Fact: While steroids are often needed to initially control an acute allergic reaction, these drugs can have significant side effects, such as immunosuppression, if used long-term. Therefore, these medications should be used at their lowest effective dose, and tapered off once your pet’s condition improves. Other allergy treatments include:
- Bathing — Bathing your pet weekly with a mild, non-irritating shampoo can help remove allergens from their skin and decrease inflammation.
- Anti-itch medications — Several anti-itch medications are available, and our veterinary professionals can determine the best products for your pet.
- Omega-3 fatty acids — Supplementing omega-3 fatty acids can improve your pet’s skin and coat health, and decrease their signs.
- Hyposensitization therapy — Desensitization treatment is the gold standard approach for atopic pets.
Knowing the facts about pet allergies will ensure your affected pet gets the help they need. If you suspect your pet is suffering from an allergy, contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Lebanon Animal Hospital, so we can start a diagnostic investigation and determine what is causing the problem.