Allergy season is upon us again. Where I live in central Ohio, the tree pollen count was the highest ever in April. I am sneezing, have runny eyes and blowing my nose all day long. Every year at the same time, in the spring I start sneezing. When this happens, I know I will start to see a number of my canine friends coming in with itchy skin or ear infections. (Almost all ear infection probably starts as an allergy.)
The most common symptoms of allergies in dogs and cats, involves inflammation of the skin and to a lesser degree, the gastrointestinal system. Therefore, the most common things we see are itchy animals with ears infections or if they have food allergies, vomiting and diarrhea. People and animals are both allergic to the same things, but people and pets react in different ways.
We need to first define what allergies are.
Allergies are abnormal immune system reactions, to things that are usually harmless. Most people think that allergies happen when are immune system is suppressed. Quite the opposite. Allergies are an exaggerated immune response or hypersensitivity, to specific things, called allergens. The allergens can be to pollen, dander, molds, dust mites etc.
In people, the respiratory tract is where we see most of the signs of allergies. People’s signs are mostly due to our cells releasing histamine. That is why you see an array of antihistamines on the market such as Benadryl, Allegra and Claritin.
In our pets, histamine plays much smaller role in their allergic reactions. Pet’s cells release only 10-30% as much histamine in an allergic attack, which means antihistamine therapy by themselves are only 10-30% as effective in our pets. When antihistamines are combined with a good omega 3 fatty acid supplements, though, the synergetic effect can approach 70% reduction in itching.
(The good is in italics, because of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which changed the classification of all nutritional supplements in the United States, human and veterinary, from drugs, and reclassified them as food. This means that nutrional supplements do not need preapproval by the FDA before entering the market. A recent study found 85% the supplements sold in the United States, did not match the label ingredients! So…do your research and ask your vet for good products.)
There are a number of ways we treat allergies in our dogs and cats. Avoidance of the allergen that is causing the problem would the best way to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, most of them are airborne, so this is not possible, unless we want to put our pets in a bubble!
In some of the milder cases, we can use the antihistamine/fatty acid combination. In many cases, where the animal has only one episode a year, corticosteroids are used. Steroids are very effective and stop the symptoms quickly. Corticosteroids used to excess though, do have unwanted side effects.
We are always looking for safer, long term solutions. Some topical products can help. Some can actually make things worse. A growing number of dogs have a secondary yeast infection that needs to be treated. Some animals we allergy test to find the specific inciting allergen, and then teach the clients to give injections to their pets, just like people do when they get hyposensitizing allergy shots. This takes a dedicated pet owner. Atopica, is a newer medication, is very promising and has fewer side effects. So as you can see, there is no one size fits all treatment for your pet’s allergies. Ask your vet on the best treatment for your pet.
The treatment of food allergies involves feeding your animal a specific hypoallergenic diet. Many foods sold in pet food stores claim that they are hypoallergenic, and most are not. Just remember organic and natural have no defined definition in pet foods in the United States, so they can use these words to describe anything. Natural and organic do not mean hypoallergenic. Make sure to rely on your veterinarian to tell you which one to buy.
Dr. Rex Riggs grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio, near Akron. Dr Riggs is co-owner of Best Friends Veterinary Hospital in Powell, Ohio. He is also on the board of the North Central Region of Canine Companions of Independence, a board member of The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine Alumni Society and Small Animal Practitioner Advancement Board at The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Riggs lives in Lewis Center with his wife Nancy, their two dogs Boo and Maggie, and two cats Franklin and Speeder. Outside of work, Dr. Riggs is an avid golfer and enjoys travel and photography.