If your dog is waking you up at night licking, chewing, and scratching themselves, we need to talk. Skin problems are one of the most common reasons pet parents bring their animals to see us at the clinic.
While some itching and scratching can be normal, constantly irritated pets may have something else going on.
A lot of owners assume its allergies. It could absolutely be allergies, but what exactly does that mean?
Let’s take a look at the three major causes of true underlying allergies in pets, why skin problems can be frustrating for pets and owners, and what we can do together to manage allergies in our itchy pets.
What actually is an ‘allergy’?
An allergy is the overreaction of your pet’s immune system to something that would not bother another animal.
Allergies can be a general term to describe a group of clinical signs, such as itchy eyes or a runny nose.
We also use the word allergy to refer to developing hives to certain foods, or the grass at the park.
More severe, allergies can cause such a big reaction that your pet can start to have trouble breathing or have hazardous drops in blood pressure.
An allergy is an inappropriate immune system overreaction to something. The immune system in these cases releases compounds that cause itchiness and inflammation, namely histamine and heparin.
For our pets, allergies most commonly result in itchiness, rather than things like a cough or runny nose.
Symptoms of allergies in pets
Allergic pets can manifest symptoms in many ways, some more obvious than others.
Many pet owners recognise a pet is itchy when they are constantly scratching themselves, but here are some other signs of a potentially itchy pet:
Chewing on themselves
Rubbing on surfaces repeatedly
Scooting their bum
How do I know what’s causing my pet’s allergies?
As mentioned, some itching and scratching can be normal. A dog or cat will inevitably need to scratch on occasion or even be mildly irritated to certain changes in their environment. However, there is a portion of itchy pets that truly do have underlying allergies.
There are three major categories of things that cause truly allergic pets.
When diagnosing an itchy pet, your vet will want to start by ruling out parasites as the cause. Mites may cause itchiness in pets, and your vet can take a sample of your pet's skin to make sure there aren't any mites present.
Fleas are the major parasite responsible for an allergy in our pets. They can irritate any animal, but some pets are allergic to flea saliva. This means their immune system releases compounds that cause itchiness and inflammation in response to flea bites, which can cause major hair loss, redness, skin infections, etc. We refer to this as flea allergy dermatitis, or FAD.
My first step when working on an itchy pet is to make sure they are on regular flea prevention, so we can take fleas out of the equation.
A lot of owners jump to food as the cause of allergies in their pets. This could be true, though truly food allergic pets are not our most common itchy animals.
While many people believe that food allergies are caused by grain, the real culprit of causing inflammation in food allergic pets is the diet’s protein source. This means chicken, turkey, beef, venison, duck, etc. It’s true that some animals can be sensitive to things like wheat or corn, but the majority of our true food sensitive pets are reactive to the protein.
The only way we can determine if a pet is food allergic, is to do what’s called a diet trial with a novel protein or hydrolysed protein diet.
A novel protein is a protein source the pet has never had before and a hydrolysed protein is a protein source that has been made to be very broken down so it is less likely to stimulate the immune system.
Diet trials can be challenging for owners because the pet has to eat only the diet trial food for upwards of eight to 12 weeks, so everyone has to be dedicated to sticking to it. At the end of that time period we assess the pets symptoms, and also challenge the diet by adding back in one new thing at a time to see if the itchiness worsens or recurs.
This helps us plan what the pet can eat long term safely without causing severe symptoms.
Yes, there are blood tests that check for food allergies, but unfortunately these are not super accurate.
Your pet may be sensitive to that big beautiful world out there. Possible allergens include things like grasses, pollens, dander, or dust.
In addition to trying to avoid things you know your pet is sensitive to, there are lots of medications available that can help manage symptoms of an allergic pet. These include both topical things like creams or shampoos, as well as oral or injectable medications. Chatting with your vet can help determine what regimen works best.
A blood test can be done to determine what types of environmental allergens are an issue for your pet.
But the most accurate way however to determine what allergens are bothersome, is with intradermal skin testing at the veterinary dermatologist. They do testing just like in humans to grade your pets reaction to common allergens.
The end goal of allergy testing is to formulate allergy immunotherapy specific to your pet. This can be in the form of injections or an oral liquid given under the tongue to slowly help desensitise your pet to the things that are causing their symptoms.
I took my dog to the vet for itching but the symptoms came back… why?
We have a lot of clients express frustration with their allergic pets needing repeat trips to the vets. I completely understand this frustration, as I have a dog with allergies at home.
An important concept vets relay to pet owners is that we cannot cure allergies in pets, but our goal is to decrease the number of flare ups they have and make those symptoms less severe when they do happen.
Pets also can commonly develop secondary bacterial or yeast infections which require treatment. This means we have to make sure we are taking care of the primary issue (itching) and the secondary issues (infections) to have success.
Allergies are a condition that gets managed over time rather than a ‘one and done’ treatment type scenario. Because of this, it’s important that pet parents understand that finding a regimen that works for your pet can take some time and some tweaking. But doing so will help you and your pet in the long run.
When to see your vet for allergies
If you notice any of the above signs of itching in your pet, it may be time to call your vet.
In particular, if these lead to redness, hair loss, or skin lesions, that warrants a trip to your vet for an exam and to make a plan.
Can pet insurance cover allergies?
Allergies will often be something you need to manage for your pet for life. That can get really expensive, but if you have pet insurance when your vet starts investigating the allergies, it can help cover the cost.
Some pet insurance policies are time limited, which means they’ll only cover a condition for 12 months and after that you’ll have to pay for it yourself.
All ManyPets policies are lifetime pet insurance where the vet fee limit refreshes each year when you renew your policy. This type of cover is particularly good for long-term or chronic conditions like allergies.
In 2021, ManyPets had over 11,000 claims for allergic conditions including flea allergy dermatitis, food allergies, and atopic dermatitis (environmental allergies). The average claim cost was £215.86.
Lots of pet owners will need to claim several times a year, so you can see how the cost would stack up without the right cover.
How can I help my allergic pet at home?
While truly allergic pets will likely need long-term support from your vet, there are some things pet owners can do to help:
If your vet prescribed medication to help treat your pets skin, finish the entire course of medication. Even if the symptoms get better before the end of therapy.
Keep your pet on regular parasite prevention (monthly, all year round).
Avoid allergens you know your pet is sensitive to if you can (e.g. certain grasses, pollens, dander).
Ring your vet for help before symptoms get severe. If secondary infections are present, they can be easier to get rid of the sooner we address them.
Ask your vet if supplements to help with inflammation may benefit your pet.
If you need ongoing medication to soothe your pet's allergies, check if an online pharmacy could dispense your prescription. Medicine is often delivered quickly and it's more affordable in the long run.
There are so many ways to keep your itchy dog or cat comfortable now – work with your vet to come up with a management plan and be vigilant of any changes in your pet’s symptoms so you can act fast to stop things escalating.