One of the most frustrating and increasingly common conditions we see in pets is allergies. Many people are surprised to learn that their pets can suffer from allergies. The truth is, not only do we see a significant amount of allergic disease in our patients, they can suffer in ways that are often more significant than they are for us.
Unlike people who will most commonly develop cold-like symptoms, most of our canine and feline patients will develop itchiness of the skin.
In simple terms, an allergy is an inflammatory response, caused when the body’s immune system reacts to something that it identifies as harmful that, in fact, should be ignored. When this response occurs on the skin of our pets, not only does it make them itchy, it disrupts all of the skin’s normal barriers and defenses for infection. The poor pet is then left scratching and licking at skin with weakened defenses, and in many cases skin infections follow quickly, making the pet even more itchy.
Allergies can develop in any individual at any time. Almost everyone is “allergic” to something – mosquito bites would not be itchy if our body’s immune system did not consider the anticoagulant they inject as a foreign threat. However, most individuals who truly suffer from allergies will have a particularly sensitive immune response to a number of things. This is important to remember: rarely can a patient’s allergy symptoms be alleviated by avoiding just one thing. Rather, it becomes a process of trying to lower the overall burden of exposure to a number of culprits.
The correct term for these “culprits” is allergens. In our pets we generally consider the common allergens to fall in two categories: environmental (pollens, grasses, mould, etc.), and food. Keep in mind that in these patients, the problem is not the food or the environment per se, but the way the body responds to exposure to these things. Since the real problem is an overzealous immune response, it stands to reason that these individuals will suffer most when they are exposed to a cumulative amount of allergens. What this means is that a pet may very well have a food allergy that remains asymptomatic until a certain time of year, when the environment adds another allergen to the mix (e.g. during ragweed season) and the pet crosses a threshold and becomes obviously symptomatic.
In the case of food allergy, which is an increasingly common component of all allergic disease in our pets, the most common allergens are beef, milk products, chicken, lamb, eggs, and some cereals. The list of common environmental allergens is even longer and includes many seasonal and non-seasonal culprits. Whenever we suspect allergic disease in a pet, we will almost always recommend a diet trial as part of our approach. There has proven to be no better way in pets to diagnose food allergy than trial and error. That said, it has to be done in a very controlled manner. The basic principle is to feed your pet a diet containing ingredients that the pet has not been significantly exposed to in the past. It can take two or three months to see results and it’s vital that during this time the pet receives only the diet being trialed.
If your pet becomes itchy at any time of year, a visit to your vet is very important, and as a rule the sooner the better – once allergies take hold and the secondary infections get established, the problem is much more difficult to control. Your vet will want to make sure that other causes of itchiness are crossed off the list before taking the step of helping you work through the challenging management of allergic disease in your pet. Your vet will guide you through a proper diet trial. I would advise anyone concerned about food allergy in their pets to seek diet advice from their vet. Unfortunately the rate of allergen cross-contamination in store-bought pet foods is around 75 per cent, so it’s not likely that you will be able to find a true exclusion diet in the pet store.
So, if your pet seems to be scratching and biting at themselves, licking their paws non-stop, or having frequent skin and ear infections, talk to your vet about allergies sooner rather than later. Remember that even if your pet is only itchy at certain times of year, a true novel or hypoallergenic diet may be a big part of their successful treatment.