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I evaluate so many pets for skin disease from allergies every spring season. Highly concentrated pollen in the air during the spring and summer seasons causes more allergic reactions in pets. Sometimes, pet owners don’t even realize their pets’ symptoms are from atopic allergies. At least 75% of my patients will visit me at some point in their lives for itching, scratching, licking, hair loss, redness, scabbing, and ear infections, including my own dog, Dory! Unlike humans who present with runny noses, coughing, sneezing, or red watery eyes when allergies attack, our pets’ allergies result in generalized itching, skin infections, and ear infections. So let’s discuss environmental allergies in dogs and cats, why pets become so itchy, and ways to help identify, manage, and treat pet allergies.
What are pet environmental allergies (atopic dermatitis)?
Atopic dermatitis (environmental allergies) is an overreaction or hypersensitivity to substances in the environment, such as pollens, grasses, soils, house dust mites, or mold spores, to name a few.
What are the most common clinical signs of atopic dermatitis in pets?
Generally, most allergic pets begin to show signs between 1 and 3 years of age. The most common clinical signsyou may see are licking at the paws (many times after coming in from outside), generalized hair loss, scratching, chewing, or biting intensely, skin damage due to scratching or licking, and ear infections.
Are certain pets more likely to develop atopic dermatitis?
Allergies sometimes have a hereditary component. Common breeds that are predisposed to atopic dermatitis include but are not limited to Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, West Highland White Terriers and other terriers, and Bulldogs. Pets living in tropical environments, such as in South Florida, are more likely to be diagnosed with atopic dermatitis.
But how do I know if my pet has allergies?
The first step is to work with your veterinarian to determine if your pet is suffering from allergies, and if so, the cause of the allergic reaction. A food allergy requires placing your pet on a prescription hypoallergenic diet or a nutritionally balanced, whole food recipe designed for your pets needs. If your pet is allergic to fleas, veterinarians can prescribe flea preventatives that are very effective and most importantly, safe for your pets. Environmental allergies are more difficult to treat, but I am excited about some of the new treatment optionsavailable.
The second step is to have your veterinarian determine the type of skin infection your pet has for proper treatment. Many times, your veterinarian will recommend skin scrapes, skin cytology, cultures, or bloodwork to assess the type of infection in order to treat your pet’s infection accordingly.
So what can I do to help my itchy pet?
It is important to allow your veterinarian to thoroughly assess and create a treatment plan for your pet’s allergy. There are many treatments available, but every pet is unique. Your veterinarian must prescribe treatment regimens. Here is my top list for treatment of allergies and associated skin infections:
- Weekly medicated shampoos prescribed by your veterinarian
- Omega 3 fatty acids supplementation
- Proper and effective flea and tick preventatives
- Hypoallergenic vaccinations
- Referral to veterinarian dermatologist
What can immunotherapy do for my itchy dog?
I am so excited for all the wonderful and exciting new treatment options for dogs suffering with allergies and severe itchy skin, a condition that has proven extremely difficult to treat. Immunotherapy to treat dogs suffering from allergies and itchy skin is changing the way we have treated allergies in the past and is much safer with fewer side effects and more positive results. Immunotherapy involves giving a substance to your dog that stimulates an immune response targeting specific environmental allergies. So how do these new treatments work?
Apoquel is a pill taken orally that uses AK1 & JAK3 inhibitors for treating itching in dogs. What are AK1 & JAK3 inhibitors? Our immune systems, and our pets’ immune systems, create a group of molecules (proteins, glycoproteins, and peptides) called cytokines. Cytokines help stimulate the movement of cells towards sites of inflammation, infection, and trauma. Specific cytokines are released by the immune system to create itchiness, which is the body’s way of fighting certain types of allergies and notifying you that something is wrong.
Apoquel restrains or prevents the release of certain cytokines that play a significant role in inflammation and itching caused by allergies. This drug is the first one able to target only the specific immune response that creates itching! The recommended dose is twice per day for the first 2 weeks and reduced to once per day to control itching. Of course, my goal is to keep pets on the lowest dose of medication possible.
2. Canine Atopic Dermatitis Immunotherapy (CAD)
CAD is a monthly injection for use in dogs containing an antibody that targets and neutralizes interleukin-31. But what in the world is interleukin (IL)-31?! Our cells, and those of our dogs, make interleukins. Interleukins send signals to the brain to tell our bodies things like, “This stove is hot,” “My skin itches,” “This food tastes horrible,” or “My back hurts.” Scientists located a specific interleukin, interleukin-31, that is only found in dogs who have environmental allergies (flowers, soils, pollens, etc.). Interleukin-31 tells the brain, “I am itching.” These amazing scientists created an antibody to isolate and attack interleukin-31 and prevent signaling to the brain!
So what is so exciting about this treatment? It uses the body’s natural immune response (antibodies attacking foreign particles) to combat itching. The treatment simply interrupts the cycle of itching and inflammation in dogs that have environmental allergies. The treatment consists of a monthly injection administered by your veterinarian, or you can administer it yourself at home, if comfortable.
Can Eastern Therapy Food Medicine and diet help my pet with allergies?
As a veterinarian, I love combining my Western medical education and background with Eastern philosophy-based therapy. I love the more natural, holistic approach to medicine. I am going to let pet nutrition specialist, Marney Prince, touch more on Eastern Therapy Food Medicine and how it can help your pet suffering from environmental allergies.
Start with a round of probiotics. Allergy symptoms may be exacerbated if the dog’s digestive system is not functioning as a balanced system. Having a healthy gastrointestinal (GI) tract is essential for dogs because this is where all food nutrients are absorbed and assimilated by the body. Undetected imbalances in the flora can cause chronic mild dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and susceptibility to infections. Imbalances may also interfere with the ability of the immune system to work properly. Probiotics will help bring balance and harmony to the GI tract, allowing your dog to heal naturally.
2. Apple Cider Vinegar
Good old, Apple Cider Vinegar! Make sure it is raw and organic – add 1 teaspoon for every 15 pounds of body weight to meals daily. We love this stuff! It has anti-fungal, antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties, which can help with skin irritation and inflammation.
3. Coconut Oil
Again, aim for raw and organic – add 1 teaspoon for every 20 pounds of bodyweight to meals daily. Coconut oil contains Lauric acid which helps to reduce yeast, enhance skin health, and lessen inflammation.
4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
We pack our food and supplements with foods rich in Omega-3s because along with helping brain and cell function, Omega-3s have incredible anti-inflammatory properties that many dogs need during allergy season. Omega-3 fatty acids also provide optimal nourishment to the skin and coat and help relieve joint pain!
5. Antioxidant Rich Foods
Blueberries, parsley, broccoli, kale, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, papain, turmeric, and bone broth are all antioxidant rich, healthy foods that will contribute to a cleaner, stronger immune system, which will help battle those pesky allergens!
6. DIY Allergen Spray
Perhaps the best thing you can do to help your itchy pet is to get allergens off of their body. We like to fill a spray bottle with water, add 10% apple cider vinegar and a big rosemary sprig, shake it like you mean it, then spray liberally on your dog (including their feet). Then simply wipe off with a clean rag.
Along with these suggestions, a clean, whole food diet can also make a HUGE difference – a cleaner system is more receptive to healing, preventing, and fighting those seasonal allergens! Even if your pet has had an assessment in the past, we recommend they retake it with the start of a new season. As the weather changes, so do our pets’ bodies!
Final Thoughts on Environmental Allergies in Dogs and Cats
I love learning and utilizing treatment options that help ease suffering in pets. These newer therapies are replacing older treatment options, such as steroids, that can be harmful on the body with long-term use. Controlling common allergies and itching in pets is difficult and frustrating for me, as a veterinarian. But it’s even more so for my patients and their parents. I cannot stress enough that environmental allergies in dogs and cats are not curable, only manageable. I am always excited when new research and proven safe and helpful treatment options become available to us and our pets.
As always, my number one goal is to make sure our pets are happy and healthy. I hope this article brings insight into treatment options as well as newer, safer options for itching pets! If you have any questions or concerns, you should always contact your veterinarian. They are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets. And now, they can determine if your pet is a candidate for these great new treatment options!
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Dr. Alison Birken is a small animal veterinarian in Ft. Lauderdale Florida. She owns Victoria Animal Hospital, is the co-founder of Forever Freckled, wife to her amazing husband Rob, mom to her 3 greatest accomplishments Luke, Leah & Hayden and dog mom to her Saint Bernard Dory