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Symptoms of and treatment for your pet’s allergies

Approx. 7 minutes read

It’s tough to not feel sorry for your furry friend when they have itchy, watery eyes, can’t stop scratching, are overcome with sneezing, or just look worse for wear. Whether it’s allergy season, your pet is genetically prone to skin allergies, has a food sensitivity or flea bite, there is – pawtunately – a lot you as their caring human can do about it.

In this article, we help you to identify your pet’s itches and irritations, and recommend a range of treatments to offer relief from their allergies.

What causes pet allergies?

Dogs and cats – like humans – have an immune system that acts as a defence mechanism for their body. One tiny protein, dust or smoke particle, microlitre of parasite saliva, or other allergen could trigger the release of histamines, which show up as allergies in your pet. If you think of your own allergic reactions – itchy eyes and ears, tearing, runny nose, inflammation, hives (skin welts), itchy skin, even stomach upset – then you’ll understand that your pets also suffer from allergies when their immune system is triggered.

Types of pet allergies

Pets can be exposed to different allergens that trigger different allergic reactions. These allergies include:

Food allergies

Our pets can be allergic to certain food proteins – whether it’s in wheat (gluten), chicken, eggs, beef, soy – or food additives. Food allergy reactions are not only gastrointestinal (such as vomiting or diarrhoea), but because of their immune response, can include itchy skin on their body or ears. These reactions can also result in secondary symptoms such as weight loss, depression, hyperactivity or even aggression. It takes eagle eyes and careful observation of your pet’s eating habits to figure out (a) if your pet has a food allergy and (b) what that food allergy is.

Environmental allergies

Environmental allergies are also referred to as inhalant allergies, and can include dust, pollen, grass, mould, and fungal spores (which can be seasonal, and more prevalent at certain times of the year). They can include perfume, cigarette smoke, room sprays or deodorisers, and fumes from cleaning products. These allergens can trigger an allergic reaction (called atopic dermatitis) in and around the animal’s face, with symptoms such as sneezing, tearing eyes, inflammation and redness in the skin, and itchy ears.

Environmental allergens can also trigger allergic bronchitis in both dogs and cats. Symptoms of allergic bronchitis include wheezing while trying to breathe; a dry, hacking cough. If the animal continues to cough and struggle for air, the further constriction of their airways can become a medical emergency as they are deprived of oxygen.

Flea allergies

Cats and dogs are not allergic to the fleas themselves, but to a protein in the fleas’ saliva. Whether there is a flea infestation or your pet gets bitten just once, it can trigger an allergic reaction that includes flea allergy symptoms of itchiness and redness. This flea bite, if left untreated, can cause your pet to scratch relentlessly and develop a hotspot, or acute moist dermatitis.

Contact dermatitis

Similar to environmental allergies, contact dermatitis is an allergic reaction triggered by an environmental allergen; except it’s not inhaled, but makes contact with the skin. Contact dermatitis symptoms include redness, inflammation, welts and even skin lesions. The condition is itchy and painful and can cause your pet to scratch a lot, putting them at risk of secondary infection and hotspots.

There are other types of skin allergies, which you can read more about here.

Pet allergy symptoms

Both cat and dog allergy symptoms are similar, depending on the types of allergens they are exposed to. Pet allergy symptoms, broadly, include:

  • Upper respiratory symptoms
    • wheezing, sneezing, coughing
    • snoring
    • nasal discharge
  • Skin symptoms
    • lumps, bumps and welts
    • dry, flaky skin
    • inflamed paws
    • excessive licking or chewing
    • rubbing or scratching (which can lead to hair loss)
    • over-grooming in cats
  • Sensory symptoms
    • ear infections
    • itchy eyes, with tearing
    • conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
    • vomiting
    • diarrhoea
    • excessive salivation
    • loss of appetite

What is my pet allergic to? Diagnosing pet allergies

If your pets only show allergy symptoms during seasonal changes, then it’s quite simple to deduce that they may have seasonal allergies from environmental allergens. If their symptoms flare up after a meal or when they eat something they’re not supposed to, it’s safe to assume they have a food allergy. However, it’s helpful to rather get a definitive diagnosis from the vet so that you can use targeted treatment to help your pet feel well again. Your pet’s veterinarian will be able to run the correct medical tests (blood panels, intradermal tests and elimination diet trials) to determine the true cause of your pet’s symptoms.

Treatment for pet allergies

The best way to protect your pets from allergies is to help them avoid those allergies altogether. However, where it’s not possible – such as with seasonal allergies – there are practical steps that can be taken to help your itchy, affected pets.

Medication for pet allergies

Depending on the nature and severity of your pet’s allergies, your vet may prescribe various medicines to reduce your pet’s reaction to allergens. These may include:

  • antihistamines
  • steroids (topical or injectable)
  • non-steroidal treatment like Cyclosporine
  • antibody injections
  • omegas-3 and -6 essential fatty acids

Treating pet food allergies

Part of diagnosing a cat or dog’s allergies to food involves food elimination trials – removing one protein or ingredient at a time to see if your pet’s health improves and their symptoms go away. Treatment in the case of a cat or dog food allergy would simply be to feed your pet a diet free of the protein they are allergic to. We go into a lot more detail in our blog article on dog food allergies.

Ultimately, you would need to change your pet’s food to a hypoallergenic pet food, a grain-free dog food or even home cooked dog food for dogs with allergies (with guidance from your veterinarian of course). Dog food for allergies may include:

Treating and managing environmental allergies

The vet will prescribe a treatment protocol to help relieve your pet’s allergy symptoms – from antihistamines and corticosteroids, to antibiotics if your pet has a skin infection from scratching too much. Medicated shampoos and topical creams can also help to soothe the itch, but managing your pet’s exposure to environmental allergens is the key to preventing the condition.

Easier said than done…

Unless you are prepared to confine your dog to an ionised, ozonated room for the duration of spring and autumn, it’s practically impossible to completely avoid environmental allergens. Dust, pollen, spores, and grass are difficult to avoid, especially for such an outdoorsy creature as a dog! However, to reduce your dog’s allergen load, it’s advisable to walk him or play with him during the early hours of the day when there’s less dust and pollen in the air. Keep his bedding clean and dust-free, and wipe down his coat and paws with a wet cloth or cleaning wipes before he comes indoors after playing outside. Keep his home environment clean and tidy.

If your pet is highly reactive to cigarette smoke, perfumes, household cleaning products, etc., it would make a whole lot of sense to stop exposing them to those allergens. Don’t allow smokers to smoke indoors or near your pets, replace your room sprays or perfumes with flowers and indoor plants (ensure your pets aren’t allergic to those either!), and rather opt for pet-friendly cleaning products and disinfectants, such as these:

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If your cat is sensitive to environmental allergens and quick to develop respiratory symptoms, you can help to ease her allergen load by using dust-free cat litter and grooming her regularly to remove dust and dirt from her coat before it enters her airways. It will also help to ensure your home is regularly cleared of dust and other allergens.

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Treating flea allergies

Once your vet has diagnosed the flea allergy, they will prescribe medication to treat the symptoms of flea allergy dermatitis. Antibiotics, steroid creams, antihistamines, and medicated shampoo to soothe your pet’s skin will help to relieve those painful symptoms. However, this is the pawfect case of ‘prevention is better than cure’ – the best thing you can do for your pet’s flea allergies is to prevent parasites from biting them in the first place. Keep your dog or cat’s tick and flea repellent medication up to date, and also treat their environment for infestations.

Treating contact dermatitis

The treatment of contact dermatitis is similar in approach to environmental allergies – keep your pet away from the thing/s that make them allergic. Once the vet has treated your pet’s allergic skin reaction with the necessary medication, it’s up to you to determine the best way to protect your pet from allergens. Some dogs’ skin is just very reactive and you can’t always keep them out of contact with the allergens their immune system reacts to. Therefore, it’s impawtant to have home remedies for dog skin allergies at hand. Make sure you always have soothing shampoos, creams and gels in your pet care cupboard – the moment you see any redness, inflammation or dry skin, or your dog is scratching a lot, you’ll be able to soothe the symptoms before they get too painful or problematic.

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Practical, useful information like this can work wonders when prioritising our pets’ wellbeing. Pet Hero offers vet-recommended content that empowers pet owners to improve their pets’ lives, so subscribe to our newsletter today and get all the best pet content delivered straight to your inbox!

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