April showers, bring May flowers. Most of us are familiar with this saying. But April showers also bring pollen and mold, and for those with allergies that means runny noses, puffy eyes, sinus pain, sneezing and headaches. For our pets, allergies can also be problematic. While their exposure can be from inhaled molds and pollens (allergens), pets absorb many of their allergens through their skin. The process of absorbed allergens to allergy response and symptoms is a complex one. Inhalant allergies, also called atopy, is a genetic tendency to have a heightened immune response to common, usually harmless, allergens. The important point to understand is that these allergens are harmless to those who are not allergic to them.
There are several features of atopy. It is typically seasonal, with spring and fall being the most common seasons. However, over time, the season for most pets increases and can become year-round. The onset of atopy symptoms in 70% of pets is in the first 1-3 years of life. The final feature of atopy is they respond rapidly to steroids. In comparison, food allergies are more variable and frequently do not respond at all to steroids.
The diagnosis of atopy is a clinical one, not based on testing. Symptoms in pets are primarily itchy skin. Dogs chew, lick or rub their feet, legs, around the eyes, muzzle, arm pits, ventral abdomen and anus. In cats, their pattern of irritation is not as characteristic and will mimic those found in several conditions. Twenty five percent of cats have more than one type of allergy. Genetically predisposed breeds include: Dalmatian, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, West Highland White Terrier, Shar Pei, Dalmation, Cairn Terrier, Lhasa Apso, Shih Tzu, Boxer, and Pug. After a diagnosis is made, intradermal skin testing or serum antibody testing is used to find what your pet is allergic to. Intradermal skin testing involves shaving the area of skin, injecting small amounts of antigen and watching for a skin reaction, usually swelling or redness. Serum testing does not look for a direct skin response but measures antibody levels in the blood to specific antigens.
Once a diagnosis is made, there are several options for treatment. Many pets with allergies have secondary skin infections which need to be addressed at the same time. Secondary infections are either bacterial (Staphylococcus) and/or yeast (Malasezzia). These are normal organisms that live on the skin and penetrate deeper tissues because of damage from chewing and scratching. These secondary infections can further the allergic response and the prevent resolution of symptoms until they are addressed. Direct treatment options for the allergy include the following:
Choice of the best treatment option should be a discussion between you and your veterinarian and be based on the severity and seasonality of your pet’s allergies.
Finally, reducing your pet’s allergen exposure can also help to reduce symptoms. Bathing weekly can reduce allergens on your pet’s skin. Pets with atopy have abnormal attachments between their skin cells allowing antigens to get in. Picture a brick wall where the mortar between the bricks is damaged and rain water can seep in. Using a therapeutic shampoo containing phytosphingnosine can help rebuild the skin’s natural barrier. Phytosphingnosine can repair the mortar between the bricks. Avoid stuffed toys and wash bedding regularly as this can decrease antigen exposure, especially for dust mites. Using an air conditioner and a filter system can also decrease exposure. Keeping pets indoors while mowing the lawn can decrease antigen exposure to grasses or other pollens churned up by the lawn mower.