It's a common occurrence: Pet owners expressing feelings of frustration, helplessness and even despair from a single symptom. Their pets itch and scratch, itch and scratch — and it is not a flea problem! Although this may not seem like a big deal, these owners suffer through sleepless nights as their pets scratch and chew and lick, all in an attempt to get some needed relief. If it's not fleas, what can this common problem be?
Seeing a beloved pet scratch often leads many owners think their pets have fleas. When trips to the veterinarian and doses of flea products fail to resolve the itchiness, it is time to think about environmental allergies, or atopy.
Just like people, our pets can suffer from allergies and sensitivities to particles in the air. Many times, pollen, certain grasses and trees or even dust mites can trigger this reaction in pets.
Unlike people though, our pets rarely sneeze and show signs similar to "hay fever". Instead, our pets are itchy and they will do anything to relieve that sensation. Some pets scratch constantly, others lick and chew at certain spots, like their feet and still others might rub against carpets and furniture. This behavior, and the consistent noises and thumps produced, is often too much for many pet owners. Sadly, some pets are relinquished to shelters or rescues due to a condition that is actually manageable.
Whenever your pet is itchy, it is important to remember that external parasites or even food allergies can cause very similar symptoms. Your veterinarian must help you distinguish between flea bite allergies, food allergies or atopy.
According to Dr. Kimberly Coyner, a board certified veterinary dermatologist with the Dermatology Clinic for Animals in Las Vegas, about 10% of dogs suffer from atopy and some cats can develop this condition as well. Many pets will start showing signs as early as six months of age and most will occur before the animal is five years old.
Beyond the itchiness (known medically as pruritus), pets might also show recurrent skin and ear infections or seem to be obsessed with licking their paws. These symptoms most commonly occur in warm weather for pets with pollen or dust allergies, but can also occur year round in some cases.
A Closeup of Dogs' Allergy Skin Test
Diagnostic tests for atopy try to determine what allergens are causing your pet's problems. Blood tests are often convenient since they can be done by most veterinarians, but Dr. Coyner cautions that this method has drawbacks. Skin testing (similar to scratch testing in people) is the gold standard for determining what is causing your pets allergies and is more accurate than blood tests.
While not simple, atopy can be managed with baths, medications, managing the environment and sometimes with immunotherapy. You'll need good communication with your veterinarian and maybe a veterinary dermatologist!
First, for pets that suffer seasonal allergies, being prepared ahead of time is key. Some mildly suffering pets can benefit from daily cool water rinses and a fragrance free shampoo one to two times weekly. Clipping longhaired pets decreases the allergen load and makes bathing easier.
Pollen counts in the home can be reduced by asking family and visitors to remove their shoes at the door. Routine vacuuming of areas that the pets frequent and washing of pet bedding in mild, fragrance free detergents can also limit the allergen exposure inside.
Some pet owners opt for antihistamines to help provide relief, but experts caution that they are only effective in 30-40% of dogs. Other owners insist that "steroid shots" or pills are the answer. However steroids simply decrease the symptoms and do not solve the problem — and they are not without secondary side effects.
Ideally, all pets with atopy would undergo skin testing and then start an allergen specific immunotherapy, guided by a veterinary dermatologist. By slowly exposing the pet to increasing quantities of the allergen, this immunotherapy can actually "desensitize" the pet and, over time, help reduce the severity of the symptoms. Dr. Coyner says that 70-75% of allergic pets respond to this treatment and it takes several months to become effective, so it is not a certain cure or a "quick-fix".