How to Treat the Different Types of Allergies in Dogs and Cats
By: Dr. Clayton Greenway, B.Sc., DVM | Jul 18, 2016
Allergies are really annoying to deal with. It’s rare that they can be treated with a single therapy or medication. They usually need multiple types of treatment to control them. It’s important to find a veterinarian who will dedicate themselves to your pet when you have this problem. A plan to control allergies usually means trying many different strategies and revising the plan multiple times. Rechecks and re-evaluations become critical to solving your pet’s overall allergy problems.
There are three identified categories of allergies:
- Food: This includes the ingredients in the diet, such as the protein (chicken, beef, etc.) or carbohydrate (corn, potato, grains etc.) source.
- Atopy: This includes the typical seasonal allergens such as pollens in the air (trees, grasses, weeds, etc.).
- Contact: This includes chemicals in the environment that contact the skin (floor cleaners, waxes, sprays, fertilizers, etc.).
Allergies have a cumulative effect. Often, if a dog has allergies, they are allergic to more than one category of allergies. Your dog may get really itchy in the summer making you think he only has seasonal allergies. He could also have a food allergy that is moderate and not enough to make him react in the cold months but contributes to his reactions in the summer. By controlling the food allergies, you could lessen the duration and intensity of the allergic reaction he experiences during the summer. This is an important concept to remember when treating allergies. You must consider controlling subclinical allergies as well as obvious clinical allergies.
Be aware that secondary problems may exist that contribute to the main problem of allergies. Frequently, our pets will have secondary bacterial infections when they are having allergic issues. These infections will contribute to itchiness and must be dealt with at the same time. In some cases, itchy skin can be due to bacteria and not allergies at all. It can be nearly impossible to discern what the cause is in a single appointment. This is all the more reason to implement an initial plan and continue to follow-up to control the problem.
If a food allergy is suspected by your veterinarian, he may recommend an “elimination diet trial.” This process entails taking a thorough history of what your dog typically eats and then selecting a diet that has a protein and carbohydrate source that your pet has never encountered. Nothing but the diet can be fed to your pet during this time to evaluate whether it is effective. Many people will attempt to do this on their own with simple diets, like raw food, a hypoallergenic diet or a grain/corn free diet. If you have success, it is wonderful, but this alone may not solve the problem. Allergy blood testing and intradermal allergy testing exists that can guide your selection of an appropriate diet, but these tests are expensive and their efficacy is often debated. I believe an elimination diet trial should be performed in conjunction with other therapies.
There is no way to completely eliminate your pet’s exposure to the outside. If your dog has significant seasonal allergies, you’re probably in for some level of medical treatment. Again, blood testing and intradermal testing can guide you about what environmental items may be causing your pet to react, and you can try to avoid the park when these things are in bloom. Allergy coats exist that are meant to keep pollens from contacting the skin. Shampoos can be used to wash off allergens from the environment. Many cases of atopy need traditional medical treatment.
Look at your pet’s environment and try to eliminate chemicals they may be in contact with. Change cleaning products, the material of the food bowl, avoid fertilized areas, etc. Many people will go crazy trying to hunt down a chemical in their house that may be the culprit. I have yet to see a client discover a single chemical source of allergies.
The truth is that most of our allergic pets have a combination of all these categories and a comprehensive plan must be put in place to start to identify and treat the allergies. What can I give my dog for allergies? What about cats? A common protocol that exists to do this is by starting your pet on an elimination diet trial, an antibiotic, and an anti-itch medication (a steroid). Then every 4-6 weeks, you discontinue one of the treatments: first the antibiotic, then the steroid, until the pet is just on a diet. By monitoring when your pet becomes itchy again, it can tell you what the prime source of the allergy is. Allergy medicine for dogs and cats is available that are not steroids so they don’t cause the side effects commonly experienced when using these medications. Other immune suppressive medications exist and a medication that eliminates the itch cycle at the skin level has come onto the market. Be sure to speak to your veterinarian about these options.
Many other treatments exist that can be added to your plan to control your pet’s allergies. These include antihistamines, shampoos, and omega-3 fatty acid supplements. I have a handout that I give to pet parents that lists all the different over-the-counter antihistamines and their dosages. We know that animals will respond really well to one antihistamine but not another, so by working through the list, a pet owner can try each one until they find one that works for their pet. It’s best to use the antihistamine at its full dose for no less than two weeks to assess its effectiveness. This means it will take some commitment but on some occasions, I have seen tremendous success.
Immunotherapy can also really help control allergies in our pets. Starting with an allergy blood test or intradermal testing, you can identify the different allergens that your pet is allergic to. Then a series of injections are created based on the results to administer very small doses of the allergens to your pet on a schedule. Over time your pet’s immune system gets exposed to these items in a mild and controlled way that essentially teaches the immune system to not react to them. This type of treatment can have varying levels of success but offers great results in many cases.
Considering alternative therapies is always a good idea. I am not trained in naturopathic and homoeopathic treatment options but I believe that a combination of traditional medicine and alternative therapies is ideal. They both have their pros and cons and exploring both can be beneficial.
One last point. If your pet has allergies, your vet may prescribe steroids; which are cheap and in most cases, very effective. They can temporarily bring satisfaction to a client but we as veterinarians should work harder to provide a more comprehensive and healthier long-term plan. It’s best to work through allergies, despite the frustration, and endeavour to avoid the overuse of steroids if possible. While they are a necessity in some cases, they have long-term negative effects on health. Work with your veterinarian to find the healthiest combination of therapies that will have the most success for your pet. Good luck!
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