An allergy describes a hypersensitivity to an allergen (i.e., irritant) in an organism’s environment. Like their two-legged companions, pets can suffer from allergies that cause an inflammatory response in the body that involves a complex chain of events, and leads to a variety of clinical manifestations that may be mild, severe, or life-threatening. Managing pets with allergies can be tricky, so understanding the potential clinical conditions becomes important for pet owners, who often become frustrated. Our WesVet Animal Hospital team answers some common questions regarding pet allergies.

What do allergies in pets look like?

When you think of allergies, a runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, and a scratchy throat likely come to mind—especially during certain times of the year. However, in pets, allergic signs may look completely different. Some allergic pets may experience similar respiratory signs, but most develop skin issues, with itching the most common manifestation. Affected pets may scratch, bite, or rub their ears or body against the carpet or furniture to alleviate itching. Many pets also experience itchy paws, and pet owners frequently complain that they bite or lick these areas. If food allergies are the problem, pets may suffer discomfort near the anal area, vomit, or have diarrhea. Secondary skin and ear infections are common consequences of untreated scratching and allergy-related inflammation, so the underlying allergy must be addressed to prevent recurrent, often chronic infections.  

What can pets be allergic to?

Theoretically, an organism can develop an allergy to any exposed item. In pets, the most common culprits are fleas, food, or an environmental antigen.

  • Fleas — Pets with flea allergies are actually allergic to a protein in the flea’s saliva. When the flea bites a pet to obtain a blood meal, its saliva sets off an allergic reaction that can cause intense itching, leading to discomfort, hair loss, and scabbing. A single flea bite can cause a reaction.
  • Food — Pets develop food allergies, although not frequently. Unlike people, pets are typically allergic to a type of protein, with chicken and beef the most common.
  • Environment — Environmental (i.e., inhalant) allergies are the most frequently diagnosed allergy in pets. Allergens include molds, pollens, and dust mites. 

Are some pets more prone to allergies than others?

Dogs and cats can have a genetic tendency to develop allergies, a condition known as atopy. Atopic dermatitis can occur in any dog or cat, but golden and Labrador retrievers, pit bull terriers, German shepherd dogs, and English bulldogs show an increased risk. Typically, a pet who is allergic to one antigen will likely have other hypersensitivities. One study found that up to 23% of dogs with atopy have a concurrent food allergy. 

How are allergies diagnosed in pets?

A pet who presents with signs of itching, irritated skin, or recurrent ear infections is often presumed allergic, but an accurate diagnosis is necessary for the veterinary team to develop an appropriate therapy plan. Depending on your pet’s medical history and clinical signs, our team may recommend skin testing to rule out a bacterial, fungal, or parasitic cause. If allergies are suspected, we may refer your pet to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist, who can perform intradermal allergy testing (IDAT) to measure your pet’s response to a variety of different antigens. Blood and saliva allergy tests are available, but are not typically as reliable as IDAT. 

What is the best way to treat pet allergies?

Unfortunately, an allergy cannot be cured, but we can make efforts to minimize the allergic reaction. Avoiding any potential allergens is the ideal solution, but is not always feasible. Immunotherapy, which can be achieved after your pet receives a diagnosis via IDAT, is another option. Managing your pet’s itch is another important step in treating allergies and associated conditions, because scratching compromises the skin barrier, and puts pets at risk for secondary infections. Therefore, ensuring your pet stays itch-free not only keeps them comfortable, but also minimizes potential complications. Itching and overall skin health can be managed through a combination of prescription oral and topical medications, supplements, and bathing products. Our veterinary team will work with you to develop an appropriate plan for your individual pet. 

At WesVet Animal Hospital, we know that allergies can be extremely unpleasant—for pets and their owners. That’s why we are dedicated to helping you keep your pet comfortable with the diagnostics and treatments they deserve. If you are concerned about allergies in your pet, contact us to schedule a consultation.