It’s that time of year when the practice sees a flurry of dogs and cats itching and scratching. There are many reasons why pets might become itchy – fleas, mites or lice to name but a few. At this time, however, many pets with seasonal allergies arrive at the practice, with owners seeking respite from irritated skin.
Common signs of allergies include chewing at the feet, recurrent ear infections, rubbing the face or belly along the carpet, scratching or licking at the body, and hair loss.
Licking, scratching or rubbing predisposes the skin to secondary bacterial or fungal infections, leading to further discomfort, so seeking prompt treatment is vital.
Dogs and cats can show the same signs of allergies as ourselves – sneezing, runny eyes or ‘hives’ – and most will show a pattern of itchy skin and discomfort. Licking, scratching or rubbing predisposes the skin to secondary bacterial or fungal infections, leading to further discomfort, so seeking prompt treatment is vital.
‘Allergens’ – the molecules which cause allergic reactions – come from many sources, inside and outside of the home. Common seasonal allergens include pollens. Year-round allergens include house dust mites, storage mites, fleas, other pets (such as cats and rabbits), food and household products.
When allergens are inhaled, swallowed or come into contact with the body, the immune system produces proteins which attract inflammatory cells and cause the release of chemicals such as histamines, which cause itchiness.
Pets are not born with allergies, they must be exposed to the allergen for a period of time before the ‘allergy’ – an abnormal immune system response – develops. However, there is a genetic predisposition in certain individuals and breeds (notably many terrier breeds and Labrador Retrievers).
Most pets develop signs of allergy for the first time between the ages of one and three years, although new allergies at the age of six to eight years are not unheard of.
When an allergy is suspected investigations may be carried out to rule out other causes and try to identify the offending allergen(s). Once this has been established, it may be possible to avoid the allergen, for example a particular plant or food could be removed. There are shampoos, sprays or oral medications to help manage the signs and symptoms.
Unfortunately, anti-histamines don’t work quite so reliably in animals as they do in people, but they may form part of the control measures alongside other medications, such as anti-inflammatories or immunotherapy.
If your dog or cat is scratching it’s best to call your vet as soon as possible.
By CAROLYN DANBURY, Vet