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Pet Allergies


Allergies are a common condition affecting dogs and cats. In the allergic state, the pet's immune system overreacts to foreign substances (allergens or antigens).

There are 6 known types of pet allergies: inhalant, contact, flea, food, bacterial, and insect stings. Each allergy type has some common symptoms in dogs and cats and each has some unique features.

Your pet may have the following symptoms:

1. Itchy skin either localized in 1 area, or generalized all over your pet. The most common signs are scratching, face rubbing, biting, and chewing at the skin. Usual locations are the flank, feet, face, eyes, and areas around the base of the tail. If your pet develops a secondary bacterial infection in the skin from itching, scratching, chewing, and biting -- then antibiotics will prevent further illness.

2. Coughing, sneezing, and wheezing if the respiratory system is involved. Sometimes, there may be an eye or nasal discharge.

3. Vomiting or diarrhea if the digestive system is involved.

4. If bitten or stung by an insect, symptoms can range from mild (fever, tiredness, and loss of appetite) to moderate (facial swelling marked by hives or wheals), to severe and life threatening (anaphylaxis).

Your veterinarian is able to help you choose the most effective product and treatment for your situation. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms and make your pet comfortable. In many cases, avoiding the allergen is the solution.

If the allergen can't be avoided, medications or injections may be in order. Only your veterinarian can tell you the proper course.

Inhalant Allergy
The most common type of allergy is the inhalant type. In fact, the most common cause of itching in the dog is inhalant allergy.

Inhalant allergies occur seasonally created by tree, grass, and weed pollens swirling in the air. Other irritants include household dust and dust mites, mold spores, and mildew.

When humans inhale these allergens, we express the allergy as a respiratory problem sometimes called hay fever. A dog and cat reaction usually produces severe generalized itching.

Most dogs and cats that have an inhalant allergy react to several allergens. If the number is small and they are the seasonal type, itching may last for just a few weeks at a time during 1 or 2 periods of the year. If the number of allergens is large or they are they are present year-round, your pet may itch constantly.

Treatment for inhalant allergies ranges from keeping your pet comfortable with gentle baths to drug therapy, or shots in order to interrupt the itch cycle until the skin heals and the allergen has diminished.

Treatment largely depends on the length of your pet's allergy season.

Most often anti-inflammatory therapy (steroids) will dramatically block the allergic reaction.

Generally, steroids are used on a brief and intermittent basis. This therapeutic approach is recommended for the middle-aged or older dog or cat that has year round itching caused by inhalant allergy. Small doses of steroids can be invaluable when treating chronic or acute allergic reactions.

Antihistamines can also be of value in treating the allergic animal either by themselves or when combined with steroids. Fatty acid supplementation can also be implemented with steroids and antihistamine. When the 3 of them are combined, most allergic dogs and cats are significantly improved.

Some pets may get relief from antihistamines, but owners should ask their veterinarian for proper dosage, and may have to try a few before finding the formula that helps.

Because some allergens may be absorbed through the skin, frequent bathing using a hypoallergenic shampoo or rinses containing oatmeal, aloe vera, or eucalyptus help many pets. In addition to removing surface antigens, bathing generally provides some temporary relief from itching.

Another form of allergy treatment is hyposensitization with specific antigen injections called allergy shots. Although hyposensitization is the ideal way to treat inhalant allergy, it does have some drawbacks and may not be the best choice in certain circumstances.

Once the specific sources of allergy are identified, very small amounts of the antigen are injected weekly. The purpose of this therapy is to reprogram the body's immune system. Hopefully, as time passes the immune system will become less reactive to the problem causing allergens. If hyposensitization appears to help, injections will continue for several years. For most pets, a realistic goal is for itching to be significantly reduced in severity, and in some cases, itching may completely disappear.

Environmental controls include frequent vacuuming and dusting of the areas where the dog spends time and keeping his bedding dust-free.

Contact Allergies
Contact allergies are reactions a dog or cat will have when physically touching a substance that affect the skin upon contact. Contact allergies tend to be the least common, but may be the easiest to diagnose or locate as they involve a local skin reaction to a topical substance. Identifying the allergen can involve some detective work on your part.

Among the most common substances are soaps, insecticides, wool, nylon carpets, grass and weeds, shampoos and dips, plastic dishes, contact with toxic chemicals, flea collars, and topical ointments.

Treatments include avoiding or removing the known substance and anti-itch medication given by mouth, or applied directly on the skin until the problem disappears.

Flea Allergy
Flea allergy is very common in dogs and cats. Some dogs become allergic to flea saliva, which is called flea bite dermatitis. Pets with flea bite allergy are often frantic to ease the itching and may chew themselves raw, with removal of large amounts of hair. There will often be open sores or scabs on the skin, allowing a secondary bacterial infection to begin.

The areas most commonly involved is over the rump (just in front of the tail), around the tail, belly, and inside hind legs.

Normally only minor irritations result from flea bites, often without any itching. But the flea allergic pet will have a severe, itch-producing reaction when the flea's saliva is deposited in the skin. Owners should also use the same treatments that work for inhalant allergies to reduce the itching and ease the discomfort of irritated skin.

Treatments for flea allergy start with getting your pet away from all fleas. In some cases, multiple products may be needed. Some are used on the dog and some in the dog's environment. Strict indoor and outdoor flea control is the backbone of successful treatment. If a secondary bacterial infection occurs, appropriate antibiotics must be used.

Use a flea comb on your dog or cat's coat and gather a bit of hair and "flea dirt". Daily flea combing may seem like a tedious process, but you can trap some of them in the comb. Be sure to drown them in soapy water, because fleas can jump out of plain water. In addition, soapy water destroys all flea stages.

Use washable pet bedding that can be gathered up easily by the 4 corners and laundered frequently. Restrict pets to a regular sleeping space so you can focus cleaning efforts on fewer areas.

Your veterinarian may recommend desensitization to the adverse effects of flea bites by injecting flea saliva extract into your pet in tiny amounts over a prolonged period of time. The immune system is reprogrammed and there is no longer a bad reaction to flea bites. If successful, itching no longer occurs or is less intense when your pet is bitten. However, this approach is only successful about 50 - 75% of the time.

When strict flea control is not possible, steroids block the allergic reaction and give relief. Some animals respond best to long-acting injections and others to oral medication.

Successful flea control must rid your pet of fleas, and it must rid your pet's environment of fleas. In fact, environmental control is probably more important. If your pet remains indoors and you do not have other pets that come in from the outside, environmental control is relatively easy. If your dog or cat goes outdoors or stays outdoors then this presents a significant challenge.

Many insecticides, flea powders, sprays, and shampoos have limited effectiveness because they are only effective for a few hours after application. In addition, these products just work against adult fleas, and they will only kill fleas at the time of application, with little or no residual effects.

Newer, more effective sprays can be a valuable part of the overall treatment plan. They kill adult fleas rapidly and are safe enough to use daily, if necessary. Flea sprays containing insect growth regulators (IGR's) are helpful in managing the overall problem because they help to break the flea life cycle.

Always read the label because some of the newer pet sprays with growth regulators are recommended for once weekly application instead of daily.

Other types of products are available that have residual effects lasting for several days. These are flea collars and flea dips. Pour flea dip on after bathing. Do not rinse off and allow it to dry on the skin and fur. This results in residual flea control for 4 - 5 days.

Flea collars are on your dog or cat and working 24 hours per day. However, they are not very effective in very warm humid climates because a new population of fleas can hatch out every 14 - 21 days. Additionally, if an irritation develops from the collar they cannot be used.

The latest products in the war on fleas are used once each month. Program is a tablet that sterilizes the eggs laid by the fleas. In effect, it kills the next generation of fleas.

Spot-on products like Advantage and Frontline are applied topically to a small area of your pet's skin and effectively kill fleas for at least a month. The medicine is in small vials that contains 1 dose and kills adult fleas usually before the flea has the opportunity to bite.

Environmental flea control usually must be directed at your house and your yard. Vacuuming and washing are the least toxic ways to control fleas. After vacuuming, place the vacuum bag in a large plastic garbage bag, secure the bag with a twist tie, and discard in an outdoor trash container.

A professional exterminator may be called to treat your house or you may use a house fogger or a long-lasting spray. These foggers and sprays are very effective for adult fleas, but they will not kill adults that are still in their cocoon. Do it yourself with a fogger or a spray that kills the adult fleas and inhibits development of the eggs and larvae. In climates with extended warm temperatures and high humidity, it may be necessary to treat 2 - 3 times with a 30-day residual product before all stages of the fleas are removed from the house. The second treatment is most effective if it is done 2 weeks after the first.

You will need to remove pets and their dishes from the house, cover aquariums and disconnect their aerators, close all windows and leave the house for several hours after setting off the foggers. Upon returning, all windows should be opened to air out the house.

With some of the new residual topical treatment (spray and liquid applied to the dog's neck), environmental control may become much less a concern. In some cases, treatment with these new products will effectively control the environmental problem.

Food grade diatomaceous earth a non-toxic flea treatment, used on carpeting works well. The tiny bits get in the breathing pores of the bugs and suffocate them. Monthly applications are recommended in areas with heavy flea populations, especially during the height of flea season. Sprinkle it on the carpets and then vacuum it up later. Do not purchase diatomaceous earth at a pool store, as it has a high crystalline silica content that is toxic to pets and humans. Crystalline silica content should be less than 3%. If you are pregnant, stay away from any borate substance. Keep your cats away from borax powder as it can cause terrible breathing problems and potential fatalities.

A professional exterminator can be called in for yard control with various insecticides. Or you may use these insecticides yourself. Be sure that any insecticide used has a 30-day residual and is safe for animals. Some of the newest products, which contain the growth regulator fenoxycarb, are labeled for use only once or twice a year.

Trimming lawns and weeds helps to create an undesirable environment for flea larvae because there's less shade to hide and grow. Larvae live under organic debris such as grass, branches, leaves, or soil. They live for 5 - 11 days before becoming a pupae. Because larvae don't like light -- rake up any leaves, sand, or gravel -- and keep the grass cut. Watering will also drown the larvae. A majority of the fleas and larvae will be within 50 feet of your pet's favorite resting spot, so focus on those areas.

Flea Trap is a safe and simple permanent appliance that uses heat and light to draw fleas from up to 25 feet away. Fleas are attracted to the trap, fall right through the grid and meet a sticky death on the replaceable capture pad. Adult fleas are killed on the replaceable capture pad without poisons, expensive pills, or visits to the veterinarian. Capture pads last for 3 months or until filled with up to 10,000 fleas.

Many owners swear by garlic and Brewer's Yeast to keep fleas away. Sometimes pet owners try to eradicate the problem by starting with fleas on their pet, stop there -- and in due time realize the flea problem has not been solved.

Food Allergy
Dogs and cats are not usually born with food allergies. More commonly, they develop allergies to food products they have eaten for a long time.

The most common sign of food allergy is inflamed, itchy skin usually around feet, face, ears, armpits, and groin. However, food allergy may produce itching, digestive disorders, respiratory distress, scratching at ears, shaking the head, licking and biting at the hind quarters or feet, rubbing faces on carpeting, ear inflammations, coughing, diarrhea, flatulence, sneezing, asthma like symptoms, behavioral changes, seizures, gagging and vomiting, loss of appetite, head shaking, and hair loss.

Any food or food ingredient can cause an allergy. Generally, the protein component from the meat source such as beef, pork, chicken, horsemeat, or turkey is the most likely offender. Pets can become allergic to milk, fish, eggs, corn, wheat, soy, artificial sugars, and chemical preservatives.

Most veterinarians test for food allergy when the clinical signs have been present for several months, when there is a poor response to steroids, or when a very young dog or cat itches without other apparent causes of allergy. Testing is done with a special hypoallergenic diet.

Because it takes at least 8 weeks for all other food products to get out of the system, the special diet must be used exclusively for 2 - 3 months. When trying to isolate a food allergen, your pet should not get anything but the prescribed diet in order for it to be a successful test. This includes no table food, snacks, treats, or vitamins. Your veterinarian will explain this to you, and if a positive response occurs, will tell you how to proceed.

If the dog tolerates the food well and the symptoms decline or disappear, other foods can be gradually reintroduced to determine which ingredient is the culprit. If the symptoms are not alleviated in 4 weeks, another hypoallergenic diet can be tried, and if it is not successful, further diagnostic tests are indicated.

Although tests for food allergy are available, the reliability of the test is so low that it is not recommended at this time. A food trial remains the best diagnostic test for food allergy.

Commercial foods can be found that do not contain the offending allergen.

Because animals 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.

Bacterial Allergies
Staphylococcus (staph) is a bacterium found on normal dog and skin. If the skin is normal and the immune system is normal, staph causes no problems, but some pets develop an allergy to it.

With this type of allergy areas of hair loss that looks similar to ring worm occurs. The hair loss is often round and 1 - 2 inches in diameter.

These areas become infected and need to be treated with antibiotics. The staph allergic pet usually has recurrent staph infections. The lesions will usually clear up with appropriate antibiotics, but return as soon as the antibiotics are discontinued. After a while, some pets become resistant to antibiotic treatment.

Treatment of staph allergy involves antibiotics to control the immediate problem and desensitization with staph antigen for long-term relief.

Insect Sting Allergy
Lastly, cats and dogs are as susceptible as humans to an allergic reaction from insect bites and stings. It may take more than 1 exposure before a reaction occurs. Reactions are categorized as mild, moderate, and severe. Treatment for insect bites consists of removing the stinger (if a bee sting), cleaning the wound, and administering appropriate medications.

Mild reactions include fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, whimpering, crying, swollen face or paws. Mild reactions to insect stings are similar to an immune reaction from a vaccination and most of the time resolve with little or no treatment. Many mild bites can be treated with antihistamines, topical creams, or lotions containing corticosteroids.

A moderate reaction is seen as a reaction of the skin marked by hives or wheals, rapid swelling and redness in the face, muzzle, lips, eyes, and in the neck area. It is usually extremely itchy. If untreated, the symptoms could progress to anaphylactic shock

The most severe and dangerous reaction is anaphylaxis. This is a strong allergic reaction and your veterinarian should see your pet immediately. Symptoms occur quickly following an insect bite or sting and proceed rapidly. Your pet will exhibit vomiting, diarrhea, staggering, rapid drop in blood pressure, swelling of the larynx leading to airway obstruction, seizures, cardiovascular collapse, or death. This reaction is life threatening for your dog. Anaphylaxis is an extreme emergency and it occurs soon after the sting. Your veterinarian will begin immediate emergency life support. This will include establishing an open airway, administering oxygen and intravenous fluids to increase blood pressure. He will probably administer drugs such as epinephrine, Diphenhydramine, and corticosteroids. Animals that survive the first few minutes usually return to normal health.

If your dog is allergic to stinging insects, your veterinarian may recommend that you administer Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) in the early stages of the allergic reaction. Sometimes oral medication may not be enough, and you will have to take your dog into the veterinarian's office for examination and treatment.