Veterinarian Dr. Andrew Koenitzer of Craig Road Animal Hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada, discusses causes, symptoms, and treatment of allergies in cats and dogs. 

Dr. Koenitzer

Allergies, or an allergic reaction, is the body’s immune system over reacting to something it comes into contact with. Allergies are incurable. To treat allergies, it is only possible to manage the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Types of allergies in dogs and cats include food, environmental, flea contact, and allergic reactions to drugs.  Due to the desert environment in Las Vegas, environmental allergies are by far the most common.  Pets can suffer from multiple allergies at any given time. When they arrive at the veterinarians’ office itching and scratching, the doctor must determine the type of allergen by studying the symptoms.

Fleas cause skin irritation and itching. Because of the terrain and climate, there are few if any fleas here in Las Vegas. In other parts of the country, however, consistent veterinary-grade flea control is necessary. In some cases, animals are so allergic to flea bites that a single flea bite could cause a full body itching explosion. Simply not seeing them on your pet doesn’t mean that fleas aren’t causing itch. Your veterinarian can only rule out fleas as a cause of itch by having your pet on a routine preventative.

Symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea are often related to food allergies. Your veterinarian may suggest a food trial to see if the symptoms decrease or cease altogether. The allergens in food—proteins that usually resist the heat of cooking, stomach acid, and intestinal digestive enzymes—are responsible for an allergic reaction. Food allergens survive ingestion, enter the bloodstream and target organs, causing allergic reactions throughout the body.  A food elimination trial is the only way to diagnose a food allergy. This is an eight-week strict diet trial – and if your pet eats anything outside of the prescribed diet, the eight-week trial will need to be started over again.

Novel protein diets and hypoallergenic diets are the two types of trial diets available.  A novel protein diet is a dog or cat food that has a protein source that your pet has never had before, therefore the allergic response chances are minimal. Novel proteins can include venison, duck, and salmon. The most common food allergens in dogs are beef, dairy, wheat, and chicken. While fish, dairy, and beef, are the most common allergens in cats. A hypoallergenic diet is the most effective diet trial and unfortunately the most expensive in determining a food allergy.

A hypoallergenic diet is where the protein source in the food is broken down (hydrolyzed) into small less reactive pieces that are still nutritionally adequate for the pet. These can be based on soy, chicken, and sometimes feather meal.  Production facilities that make prescription diet food are much more strictly regulated and – therefore contamination with other possible allergy inducing foodstuffs are far less likely.

Environmental allergens cause itching and pets react by scratching. Scratching can cause skin infections. A simple skin infection can become a source of significant discomfort and quickly grow into a major health issue. Infections, either bacterial or fungal, need to be cleared up before an assessment and a long-term treatment can be started for the actual allergy itself.  Sometimes serious skin infections occur between the toes, along with chronic ear infections, and rashes.

To test for rashes, skin and ear infections your veterinarian can perform a variety of procedures depending on the symptoms including, skin cytology, skin scrapes, ear swabs, skin/ear cultures, and aspirates / biopsies of lesions – depending on the severity or concern for resistance. Secondary infections may have to be treated several times until an appropriate and successful treatment can be determined. For this reason, bacterial resistance also becomes a concern. Getting your pet’s allergies under control quickly is vital to ensure the infection doesn’t become harder to treat.

There are many levels of treatment for environmental allergies that range from quick and inexpensive to the costly and time-consuming. Antihistamine trials for 2-4 weeks, omega-3 supplements, and topical shampoos / lotions / ointments are easy treatments to begin but are generally less effective. Corticosteroids are an effective treatment that sometimes aid in the diagnosis of allergies. Steroids can be effective and affordable but cause unwanted side effects and long-term use can be detrimental to internal organ function. Immunosuppressive or immunomodulatory treatments become more expensive, but are typically safer and have fewer side effects long term.

These also are typically more effective as a long-term plan for more severe cases. These may involve daily medications or monthly injections.  Allergy testing (blood or skin testing) and long-term allergy injections or sublingual drops are a more aggressive, but also expensive options.  It’s important to work with your veterinarian so that they can create a treatment plan that works best for you, and your pet. Questions to consider include:

  1. What can you physically and emotionally undertake for a day-to-day requirement (topical treatments, ear cleaning, oral medications – potentially for months to years)?
  2. What level of symptoms is tolerable for a superior quality of life for your pet?  What can you financially afford for the timeframe that your pet will require treatment?

Overall, allergies are a very treatable disease with many different treatment options for every type of pet owner. At Craig Road Animal Hospital, we see and treat many patients who suffer from allergies. If you believe your pet has allergies or is just itching and scratching schedule an appointment with your veterinarian today.


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