Allergies amongst our pets are extremely common and may be evident as rubbing around the face and the ears, or constant ear infections. You may see them chewing and licking their paws or generally scratching all over and rubbing themselves along the floor.
With many cats, we often see over-grooming as a key feature and this results in them losing hair over their thighs, back or tummy.
These problems generally fall into two categories, seasonal and non-seasonal. The seasonal problems tend to be in the summer months and in just the way that we may suffer from hayfever, dogs often suffer from allergies to various pollens. The second group tend to have no relationship at all to the time of the year and are caused by allergies to various particles around our houses and in the environment.
They can also be related to food although this isn’t actually that common.
Whilst allergies are common causes of irritation, we always have to approach these cases logically so as not miss anything simple and rule out as many things as possible. The better the diagnosis, the better the treatment may be. A thorough examination of the pet and consideration of its history often provide us with a huge amount of information.
We always try and ensure that parasites are not involved in causing the itchiness because they are the most common cause. Most frequently it may be fleas, and we can see allergies to flea saliva developing, particularly in cats. We also see problems relating to mites which burrow beneath the skin. We often use tests such as ‘skin scrapes’ to look for mites. These involve scraping the upper layers of skin away so that they may be examined. There are numerous types of mites such as Sarcoptes which causes the classical ‘mange’ and others such as Demodex.
The importance of us always controlling fleas is that a dog with a mild allergy may be pushed over the threshold for irritation by contributions from other factors such as fleas. By controlling any input from fleas, the itchiness subsides.
Investigation of Allergies
Certain breeds present more commonly than others for allergies and we may therefore encourage testing very early for some patients whilst trying treatment intermittently for others.
Investigations often initially involve the use of blood samples which are reliable in indicating what environmental materials are causing the allergy. They are not quite so useful for looking at food allergies although tests are available. We will often take skin biopsies, small sections of skin which may be sent for examination. These results can help contribute towards confirming that it is an allergy that is the problem.
What can be done?
There are many options for approaching allergic skin disease. If an allergy is confirmed, then one option is the use of hyposensitisation. This involves the patient receiving a course of injections designed specifically for the patient and which reduce the dog’s sensitivity. Ultimately, if successful, these injections are given once monthly. They may be successful in 60-70% of patients just by themselves, but in many cases, we will find that they help reduce the other treatments that we use. It can take a number of weeks of treatment before we see any effect.
Once an allergy is confirmed, this product works on the immune system reducing the manner in which the dog reacts to the allergen. Unfortunately it is quite costly, but it does work very well indeed for many patients. Once effective, the frequency of medication is steadily reduced such that we can use it once or twice weekly. Occasionally patients do not tolerate the drug initially but this resolves quite quickly for most.
Although not 100% effective, as many human patients will appreciate, these can be very useful. Unfortunately, we are limited to the older variety of products because the modern versions available for humans do not actually work for dogs at all.
These products are very safe and rarely appear to cause the drowsiness that can be a problem for some human patients.
cartoon-itchy-dogThese drugs get an awful lot of bad publicity but they remain one of the most useful drugs that we can offer to itchy patients. Without doubt, they provide immense relief. It would be useful to minimise side effects by using creams and gels, but this just isn’t practical for most patients given their covering of hair. A spray formulation is available which can be very effective.
Steroids do have a number of side effects, the most common of which are increased thirst, and urination along with increased appetite and potential weight gain. Providing the dose can be minimised and the drugs used carefully, the side effects rarely extended beyond this. However, we do also see these drugs result in problems such as diabetes and Cushings disease, a condition having effects in many parts of the body. Despite the many worries that owners may have about steroids, there are many patients who receive these drugs for a great part of their life.
When dogs and cats damage their skin, they may then get infections which add to the irritation. Sometimes, many weeks of treatment may be required.
We will often will trial diets for patients as either an exclusion diet or simply a diet to try and help maintain the skin in good condition. Exclusion diets are specially prepared diets made from a limited number of ingredients in order to help identify food allergies. We generally need to avoid beef and dairy proteins which are generally considered to be the problems. Despite what a packet may state, beef protein is found in the vast majority of dog foods.
Around 6 weeks of a single source diet, which is hopefully from new sources of protein and carbohydrate, is required as a trial, and we have to avoid all treats and titbits. Any scavenging will also effectively mean returning to the start of the trial! You can actually prepare these diets yourself which can be quite hard if you need to prepare large volumes for larger dogs, or we have a number of varieties available such as Purina HA, or Hills z/d.
The other reason for using specific diets may be that they are enriched with omega 3 fatty acids, and these oils can help maintain the skin and the coat in better condition, and making is less susceptible to becoming inflamed. Purina Sensitive is very similar to HA and can be a very useful diet as can a number of other brands.
Oil supplements are often incredibly beneficial as they improve the skin and coat. We stock high quality products such as Viacutan which is specifically formulated for animals with reliably sourced excellent quality Omega 3 fatty acids
Chinese Herbal Remedies: Phytopica
This is a Chinese herbal remedy which is very successful for some patients and given its natural origin and the lack of any side effects, it can be well be worth consideration.
There are a great number of very specific shampoos available for use. Some of these may help control the population of a small yeast called Malassezia. This yeast flourishes when the surface of the skin is altered and damaged by constant itching. It doesn’t cause the original problem but it certainly contributes so reducing its numbers can help enormously.
Other shampoos help primarily with soothing and maintaining the hydration of the skin. Others can help by maintaining a good barrier to reduce exposure of the skin to potential allergens.
What about human shampoo?
Companies spend a vast amount of money on developing human shampoos and even more advertising them! They are specific to human hair and skin which is more acidic than dog’s skin. Therefore it is best to use something specific for animals.
Lastly, not every itchy pet has an allergy. Some have problems arising from hormonal problems requiring further blood investigations. We will never just assume it is an allergy without a thorough examination and a review of how the problem has developed.
For more information about the products available, please do ask us for advice. You don’t have to put up with an itchy pet, there’s lots we can do.