5 types of pet allergies (and how to treat them)

June 3, 2024 - 6 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
jack russel terrier in bright green grass with yellow flowers holds red leash in his mouth

It can be tricky for pet owners to figure out what's wrong with their pets. In order to help keep your pets safe and healthy, we've compiled information about five common allergic reactions that can be triggered in pets.

How are pet allergies different than human allergies?

In the world of domestic animals, allergies work differently; for example, while humans with allergies tend to sneeze, dogs itch. Although similar factors trigger allergies, most pet allergies fall under the "skin allergy" umbrella and manifest as irritations on the animal's skin in the form of dry, itchy, or flaky spots.

Can a dog or cat get allergies at any time?

Yup. At any age, a pet's immune system can create antibodies that recognize and react to specific allergens. These reactions can be sudden and severe. In other cases, particularly with food allergies, the pet's immune system gradually reacts to the allergen after being exposed to it for some time.

Dog eating grass

The gradual exposure is referred to as sensitization. Subsequent exposure to the same or a related allergen triggers an overreaction. Usually, the immune system defends the pet from infection and sickness, but in the case of allergies, the immune reaction can damage the body.

What does it mean? Allergies change and develop throughout your pet's life, so things that may have once been OK can suddenly cause allergic reactions. To figure out what might be triggering your pet's allergies, pet owners have to keep an eye out for patterns that can help—keeping track of whether your pet has seasonal or year-round itching or if your pet's allergies worsen after certain treats or after you change their diet.

What are the most common causes of allergies in pets?

Many everyday or commonplace items can cause problems for your pet, resulting in anything from minor irritation to life-threatening reactions.

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Let's get into some common types of allergies in pets!

Environmental allergies

Environmental allergies are an overreaction of a pet's immune system to an allergen in the environment. These allergens are often inhaled, causing an allergic reaction or atopic dermatitis, including:

  • Grass

  • Mold

  • Pollen

  • Dust

In most situations, these allergies are seasonal, and pet owners may only notice them at particular times of the year.

What about inside your home? Some of the most common allergen-causing elements inside a home include cleaning products, fabrics, petroleum-based products such as certain rubbers and plastics, perfumes and air fresheners, and even cigarette smoke.

How to treat environmental allergies in dogs

Boston Terrier lying outside on the grass

The best way to prevent these allergies is to identify the allergen and keep pets away from the source. That's not easy, considering how many things most of us have in our homes! Here are a few things you can do:

  • Avoid fabrics or materials that seem to trigger reactions (pet beds/blankets, for instance)

  • Use hypoallergenic & unscented cleaning products

  • Regularly clean and vacuum your home to reduce allergens

  • Use air purifiers

  • Regularly bathe your pet to keep allergens low in their fur

Of course, the first thing you should do is see your vet to rule out any other serious factors! They can also help you troubleshoot what might be triggering allergies.

Plant allergies

cat with green eyes peers through blurred out leaves

Many indoor, outdoor, and flowering houseplants can trigger an airborne or contact allergic reaction. Pets can have a range of reactions, from minor skin irritations to more significant issues, such as difficulty breathing owing to inhalant allergens in the air.

Dogs with these allergies, for example, often show symptoms like:

  • Wheezing

  • Sneezing

  • Coughing

  • Itchy

  • Red or watery eyes

  • Irritated skin

  • Excessive skin licking

Inhalant-based plant allergies tend to manifest in cats as excessive itching.

How to treat plant allergies in dogs and cats

a vet nurse examines an Alaskan Malamute on a table

Do your research before buying plants, especially if they're indoor plants and you have indoor pets. Look for pet-safe plants, and not only will you (hopefully) reduce allergens, you may also save your curious pet's life. Many cute houseplants can be toxic to cats and dogs.

Bug bite reactions

Dogs ear being examined

Dogs and cats can both suffer from bug bites, especially in warmer seasons. Fleas and ticks are some of the most common ones.

Interestingly, the itch from a flea bite is an allergic reaction. Certain proteins in the flea's saliva irritate the pet's skin and cause an allergic reaction, which is why pets with these allergic reactions often scratch, bite, lick, and chew excessively at the inflamed area.

Unfortately, fleas can be tough to eradicate once they've infested an environment. Pet owners may need to treat their pets many times and remove them from the infected environment.

Effective treatment often targets adult fleas; however, sometimes veterinarians recommend more than one product to kill fleas and stop their life cycle properly. Learn more in our video from Dr. Kirsten:

How to treat bug bite allergies in dogs

Following treatment, dog owners are advised to get medicated shampoo prescribed by a vet or over-the-counter pet shampoos that contain oatmeal and pramoxine to treat skin irritation.

Dog owners can give antihistamines to their pups in mild cases based on a vet's dosing instructions to stop the allergic reaction and relieve the itch.

Flea bites in cats can cause excessive stretching or biting, resulting in the removal of large tufts of hair and the development of sores on the skin.

How to treat bug bite allergies in cats

Monthly preventative treatments can help assuage a cat's propensity for being targeted by fleas, and in some more severe cases, corticosteroids may be prescribed by a vet to address the issue.

Acute allergic reactions

Three veterinarians examine a pomernian dog wearing an e-collar on top of a table in a vet back office.

Some allergic reactions are mild; others can be immediate and severe, sometimes even life-threatening.

The trigger can be difficult to pinpoint, but the characteristic symptoms are similar, whether environmental, chemical, or pharmaceutical.

These symptoms include:

  • Itching

  • Red skin swellings, known as hives

  • A swollen face or snout

  • Excessive salivation or drooling

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

In severe cases, dogs can go into anaphylactic shock. The common causes of such acute reactions are insect bites (bee stings), antigens in vaccines, medications, chemicals, and environmental pollutants.

How to treat acute reactions in dogs and cats

The first thing any pet owner should know to do when their pet has such a reaction is to remove the triggering substance if possible.

In moderate cases, antihistamines and corticosteroids can suffice, followed by 24–48 hours of strict observation.

However, the safest option is to treat the situation as a medical emergency and seek immediate treatment! Call your vet or head to the nearest pet emergency office stat.

Food allergies

Grey senior cat eats dry food from a green bowl against a white brick wall. An adult pet with green eyes at a plate of cat food. Ten year old pet

Pets can develop food allergies at any point in their lives, even if they have previously consumed food without any problems. Food allergies are sometimes confused with food sensitivities, but they're not the same.

The key difference? Food allergies reflect a more immediate reaction. Food sensitivities, on the other hand, are typically a gradual reaction to an irritating element in a pet's food.

Proteins, particularly those derived from dairy, beef, chicken, eggs, soy, or wheat gluten, are the most common allergens in dogs.

Dog with banana

Pet food safety

Can my pet eat...

Enjoying a slice of watermelon and wondering if your dog or cat can have a bite? Check out our food safety database. We're adding new foods weekly!

Dog with banana

For cats, any protein component, including vegetable proteins, can be causative. Each time a pet eats food containing these substances, the antibodies react with the antigens, triggering the symptoms. Finding the offending food is the best way to prevent these reactions.

How to treat food allergies in dogs or cats

The best approach to diagnosing a food allergy is to change your pet's diet under your veterinarian's supervision. This is often referred to as an "elimination diet."

Elimination diets usually take several weeks to complete in order for all the elements of the potentially offending food to work their way entirely out of your pet's digestive system.

When pet owners identify the triggering ingredient in their pet's food, they should construct a balanced diet that doesn't include it. Food allergies cannot be cured, but they can be successfully managed with a hypoallergenic diet.

How to treat puppy allergies (are they different than adults?)

small chocolate labrador retriever puppy combats itching by scratching with its hind leg

While allergies can emerge at any point in your dog's life, you might notice your puppy developing allergies early on. Here are some tips on how to deal with brand new puppy allergies.

Note: Many of these steps are also applicable to pups of any age, not just puppies.

  1. Consult a veterinarian: Your vet may recommend allergy testing to pinpoint the allergens causing the reaction and may prescribe medications to alleviate symptoms. Monitor your puppy's condition closely, and schedule regular follow-up appointments with your veterinarian to assess their progress and adjust treatment as needed.

  2. Reduce your pup's exposure to allergens: Try to minimize your pup's exposure to environmental allergens by using air purifiers, keeping your home clean, and avoiding outdoor activities during peak pollen seasons. If your pup's allergic to a specific food, you might need to change up their diet.

  3. Try topical treatments: For skin allergies, topical treatments like medicated shampoos, sprays, or creams can help soothe irritated skin and alleviate itching. Again, ask your vet if you think your pup would benefit.

  4. Investigate dietary supplements: Supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids may support skin health and reduce inflammation associated with allergies. Your vet can advise you on what might be worth trying.

  5. Keep up with flea prevention: Keep your puppy on a regular flea prevention regimen (a great Wellness plan could help cover the cost) to prevent flea allergy dermatitis, a common allergic reaction to flea saliva.

Treating puppy allergies can take time and patience. Be consistent with your treatment plan and follow your vet's recommendations closely to ensure the best outcome for your furry friend.


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The bottom line

While managing pet allergies can be challenging, understanding the various types and implementing effective strategies can greatly improve your pet's quality of life.

By working closely with your veterinarian to identify triggers and develop a tailored treatment plan, you can help alleviate symptoms and ensure your pet stays happy and healthy.

Remember to remain vigilant for any signs of allergic reactions and adjust management strategies as needed to provide the best possible care for your furry friend!

And remember, the sooner you get pet insurance, the sooner you can get reimbursed for covered accident and illness treatments. Don't delay; pre-existing conditions typically aren't covered by any pet insurance company. Get more information today:

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