ASK THE VET: Can Pets Have Seasonal Allergies?
Answered by MHS Veterinarian Dr. Michael Redmer, D.V.M.
Q. This time of year, my dog starts itching like crazy until she scratches bare spots in her coat. Could she have seasonal allergies? What can I do to give her some relief?
Dr. Michael Redmer
A. The sudden onset of seasonal itchiness in dogs may indicate a sensitivity to airborne allergens, known as atopy. Just as airborne allergies are common in people, they also are common in dogs and cats, but instead of exhibiting abnormal respiratory signs, dogs and cats more commonly manifest these allergies as itchy skin.
Atopy is an intensely itchy skin condition caused primarily by inhaled allergens such as pollens, molds and dander, but any airborne particle can potentially become an allergen. Dogs with atopy are genetically predisposed to the condition, and certain breeds are more commonly represented. Female dogs are more likely to be affected than males, and animals usually do not start to show symptoms of atopy until 1-3 years of age.
Classic clinical signs of atopy in dogs include, but are not limited to, itchiness of or around the feet, armpits, inner thighs, abdomen, around the eyes, mouth or anus, and also ear infections.
In addition to airborne allergies (atopy), some allergens can be absorbed through the skin or eaten (food sensitivity/allergy). Many people assume itching due to food allergies is the result of a recent diet change. In fact, the opposite is true: Food allergies often require time to develop, and many animals have been eating the offending food ingredient for years without any problems.
Another common cause of itchiness in dogs and cats is a sensitivity to flea bites. Flea bite allergies can appear to be seasonal allergies because in Michigan, fleas reach their greatest numbers in the environment in the fall before they are killed off by freezing temperatures. However, they will persist on animals and indoors indefinitely without safe and effective flea products. Some dogs and cats are so sensitive to flea bites that they can continue to itch for up to two weeks following a single flea bite.
If you suspect that your animal has seasonal allergies, it’s best to have him examined by your veterinarian as soon as possible. Intense itchiness can result in severe self-trauma in very little time. Some treatments that may help:
- Using veterinarian-prescribed flea products on a monthly preventative schedule can eliminate fleas as a source of your pet’s discomfort. Some of these products will kill a flea before it can bite your pet, preventing the allergic response. Over-the-counter flea products are generally ineffective and potentially unsafe, and will not prevent flea bites.
- Bathing your pet with a hypoallergenic, soap-free shampoo once or twice a week can decrease the allergic exposure to your pet as well as help control itchiness.
- Dietary supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to interrupt the body’s allergic response to allergens.
- Antihistamines can help to inhibit or suppress the body’s allergic response to allergens. Often, over-the-counter products can be recommended by your veterinarian, but at doses considerably different than a human dose.
- Prescription antibiotics and prescription antibacterial and antiyeast shampoos often are necessary to treat infections that might develop due to the pet’s licking, chewing and scratching.
- In some cases, oral or injectable corticosteroids can be used to control intense, unresponsive itchiness. Steroids generally are used as a last resort and for short-term use due to adverse side effects.
Remember, dogs and cats itch for hundreds of reasons. Routine examination by your veterinarian can help to diagnose, prevent and treat these itchy skin conditions. Education plus appropriate preventative measures can help to minimize apparent seasonal skin conditions.
Michael Redmer, D.V.M., has been a staff veterinarian at the Michigan Humane Society Berman Center for Animal Care in Westland for more than 14 years. The three MHS veterinary centers comprise one of the largest veterinary practices in the state.
For a wide variety of pet health and safety topics, visit: www.michiganhumane.org/vetcare.