Allergies are one of the most common conditions we treat in small animals — especially dogs. Just like people, pets can have allergies to literally hundreds of different things — including various foods, dust, weeds, grasses, trees, and insects. Pets, however, usually manifest their allergies different from people. While humans usually develop runny/itchy eyes and nose and other respiratory problems, most pets show allergies through their skin. Red, itchy skin is the most classic symptom. Allergic pets typically lick, chew, and scratch at themselves.
"Inhalant Allergy" refers to allergic responses to particles an animal inhales or breathes in. Inhalant allergy is also known as "Atopy" or "Atopic Dermatitis." This is probably the most common allergy that we treat in small animals. Other allergies include Food Allergy, Contact Allergy, and Flea-bite Hypersensitivity. Different allergy types can often coexist in the same animal. For example, a pet who is seasonally allergic to tree pollen is also more likely to have flea-bite hypersensitivity. This can make diagnosis and treatment more difficult, since the cause of animal's problem may change throughout the year.
While all allergies typically result in red, itchy skin, the doctor will rely on a number of factors to help determine more precisely the cause of your pet's allergy. Observing your pet closely will help you better answer the doctor's questions, which in turn helps the doctor formulate the best diagnostic and therapeutic plan.
History is very important. For example, at what age did the symptoms begin? Is the problem year 'round or seasonal?
Physical exam is also very important. Different types of allergies tend to affect pets in different places. For example, foot-licking is more typical of atopy, while chewing at the back and tail areas is more classic for flea-bite hypersensitivity.
Diagnostic tests are also often needed. The doctor may perform skin scrapings to screen for parasitic insects such as Sarcoptic or Demodectic Mange, cultures to identify fungal infections, or even sophisticated blood tests to screen for antibodies to common allergens such as trees, grasses, and weeds.
Dozens of treatments are available for pet allergies — primarily because there are so many types and causes of allergies. In addition, what may help one pet tremendously may not be of much benefit for another.
When possible, the best "treatment" for an allergy is avoidance. In other words, avoid the thing(s) your pet is allergic to. Contact- and food allergies are the easiest types of allergies to treat by avoidance simply by preventing exposure to the allergens that set your pet's allergies off. Determining the substance(s) that are causing the allergy can be difficult, but once identified can be curative. For example, avoidance of cedar (a common stuffing in dog bedding) can eliminate the red belly seen in dogs with a cedar contact allergy. Similarly, finding a suitable hypoallergenic diet can essentially cure a pet with food allergy — provided they eat the special diet exclusively. With inhalant allergies, on the other hand, avoidance can be much more difficult or impossible, since pollens can be present everywhere — even indoors.
When avoidance is not enough, medications are often prescribed — especially for inhalant allergies. The doctor will discuss available treatment options with you and will make a recommendation based on the severity of your pet's allergy. When allergies are mild, antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) or clemastine (Tavist®) are effective in some patients. Antihistamines are often combined with omega-3 fatty acid supplements for an added effect. For more severe allergies, cortisone is often required. Cortisone medications such as prednisone are more powerful anti-inflammatory medications. Although cortisone carries a higher frequency of side effects compared to antihistamines, cortisone remains a highly effective and safe treatment option when used responsibly. A relatively new treatment option is cyclosporine. Cyclosporine is an immunosuppressant (as is cortisone), although it is not classified as a steroid. Cyclosporine has proven to be highly effective in those patients who do not respond well to other treatments or who cannot tolerate the side effects of other medications. Cyclosporine's primary drawback is its cost, although it may eventually come down in price as usage increases.
Another common treatment is immunotherapy or hyposensitization. Once the exact allergens that are causing problems in your pet are identified from a special blood test, a customized allergy injection mix can be formulated. We can train you how to give your pet injections of the allergy mix; injections are usually given every 1-2 weeks for life. In essence, you are "vaccinating" your pet against the agents causing the allergy. For some pets, this treatment can be quite effective, although a lag-time of 6-12 months may elapse before the injections have a noticeable effect. Some pets do not respond to hyposensitization.