Dealing with Pet Allergies

Environmental allergies are one of the most common and frustrating issues I see pet owners dealing with today. Recent studies estimate that skin- or allergy-related issues account for up to 40 percent of all veterinary visits. Not only are allergies miserable for pets and owners, they can also be expensive. As a pet owner, it's important to recognize the most common signs of environmental allergies and how to keep your pet free and clear of problems.
What Types of Things are Pets Allergic to?
Despite all the hypoallergenic foods on the market, just 10-20 percent of allergies in dogs and cats are food-related. The overwhelming majority of pet allergies can be traced to environmental triggers. Our pets can be allergic to many of the same types of things we are: dust, mold, grass, pollen, cigarette smoke and more. Pets generally develop a response to an allergen (the inciting cause of an allergic reaction) after it is either inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Atopy is the term used to describe a specific allergic condition in which pets have a genetically programmed hypersensitivity to one or more environmental allergens. Beagles, Boston terriers, West Highland white terriers, golden retrievers and English bulldogs are among the breeds that might be predisposed to the development of canine atopy. There does not appear to be a specific breed predilection in cats.
How Can I Tell if My Pet has Allergies?
The most common sign of canine and feline environmental allergies is itching that tends to coincide with the change in seasons. Symptoms can vary depending on geographic region but are generally at their worst in the spring and fall. In some cases, they can persist year-round. Itching and hair loss typically occur around the face, ears, under-arms, belly and thighs. A frequent complaint from many owners of pets with allergies is that their pet is constantly shaking their head, and/or licking and biting at his or her paws.
Pets with allergies can be prone to a multitude of secondary problems such as yeast and bacterial infections, which can lead to a generalized odor of the skin, ears and/or feet. In many cases, pets may "scoot" on their rear ends, because they are itchy in the area of their anal glands (specialized scent glands located inside the rectum). Some dog and cats may develop isolated areas of hair loss or red, inflamed skin often referred to as "hot spots."
While skin issues are most common in pet allergies, some dogs and cats can develop respiratory symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and red or watery eyes. Some pets become so miserable from itching or secondary infections that they may become lethargic or lose interest in their food.

What Should I Do if I Think My Pet has Allergies?
If you suspect that your dog or cat has allergies, visit your veterinarian. Your vet will likely want to know if you pet has any past history of allergies. Knowing whether this is your dog or cat's first bout with allergies or if it has been an ongoing problem is an important factor in determining a course of action.
If itching is mild and your pet is having reactions for the first time, it might be reasonable to simply treat your pet's allergic symptoms with medication and see how he or she responds. If itching is more severe or of an ongoing or chronic nature, further testing will generally be recommended. Your veterinarian will want to rule out other potential causes of itching and hair loss, such as mites and fleas, before concluding that your pet has environmental allergies.
A diet trial might also be recommended for your pet if food allergies are suspected. Depending on your pet's symptoms, additional testing such as fungal or bacterial cultures or ear cytology (to look for microscopic infectious agents) might be suggested. Your veterinarian will help you determine the best course of action for your pet.

Treating Environmental Allergies in Dogs and Cats
When it comes to dealing with allergies in pets, many owners are looking for a quick fix. Unfortunately, that simply isn't possible most of the time. If your pet has allergies that aren't food related, it's important to remember that he or she is likely allergic to something that cannot be eliminated from his or her environment and, unless extensive testing has been done, the cause is generally unknown. In this regard, allergies are not a condition to be cured but rather to be managed. This can be frustrating for a lot of pet owners. However, armed with the proper tools and knowledge, it is possible to deal with allergic flare-ups as they occur and keep your pet's symptoms to a minimum.
First Thing's First: Control the Itch
If itching is severe, your vet will likely want to put your pet on some form of steroid—at least initially. Steroids can be given by injection or orally and will generally be tapered over a course of a few weeks. Steroids should never be stopped abruptly, unless directed by your veterinarian. While steroids are very effective and often necessary to control intense itching, possible side effects such as weight gain and the potential to cause conditions such as diabetes and Cushing's disease (a disease that results from the effects of excess steroids on the body) do not make them ideal for long-term or continued use.
Alternatives to Steroids: Products such as Atopica (the brand name of the generic cyclosporine) are in a class of drugs known as immunomodulators, which are aimed at controlling the body's immune response at the cellular level and can serve as an effective alternative to steroids for many pets. Although more costly, these drugs generally carry fewer side effects than long-term steroids. Still, any drug that alters the immune system should be used with caution, and regular blood tests might be recommended. Talk to your veterinarian to decide whether this type of medication is right for your pet.
For mild itching, antihistamines can do the trick. Antihistamines are nearly always a great first choice for pets with allergies because they are relatively safe, well-tolerated and carry minimal side effects (most pets only develop mild drowsiness). The combined benefits of antihistamines and steroids in pets with more severe symptoms allow for lower doses of steroids to be used. Generally, in the course of allergy treatment, antihistamines and steroids are started concurrently. Then, as steroids are slowly tapered, antihistamines are continued to control long-term itching.
Both prescription and over-the-counter antihistamine options exist for our pets. As is the case with people, some antihistamines will work better for certain pets than others. Unless your pet is having an adverse reaction, an antihistamine trial should be given a minimum of two weeks before it is determined to be ineffective. Your veterinarian can help guide you with specific recommendations and dosing instructions for your dog or cat.
Managing Secondary Infections
Secondary issues such as bacterial or yeast infections often occur in conjunction with allergies and will need to be addressed in order for your pet's symptoms to resolve. Depending on the location and/or severity of any infections, your veterinarian might  prescribe oral or topical antibiotics or anti-fungal medication, or a combination of products. For many pets with allergies, medicated shampoos may also be beneficial. Follow your veterinarian's recommendations for treating any allergy-associated infections.
When to See a Veterinary Dermatologist
If itching and hair loss or other allergic symptoms are a severe or ongoing problem, a visit to the veterinary dermatologist for a full assessment is always ideal. Intradermal testing, a process in which a series of known allergens are injected into your pet's skin, will generally be recommended to determine the exact cause of the allergy. In some cases, small doses of an allergen, known as hyposensitization injections, might be given to your pet to help decrease his or her immune response to the allergen over time. A trip to the dermatologist can be expensive but will typically save owners a considerable amount of time and money that would otherwise be spent on repeated and frustrating visits to the vet.
Developing a Long-Term Allergy Management Plan
Because most causes of environmental allergies cannot be eliminated, working with your veterinarian to develop an effective management plan for your allergic pet is the single most important thing you can do to minimize symptoms. Adhering to a routine will help keep your dog or cat at his or her best and limit the need for steroids and other potentially harmful medications. Regular grooming, medicated shampoos and daily supplementation with essential fatty acids can all be important components of an allergy maintenance plan. Many antihistamines are safe for long-term use and are great for controlling mild itching in between flare-ups. Check with your veterinarian for his or her recommendations.
 Managing your dog or cat's allergies can be a frustrating and challenging process. However, armed with the proper knowledge, you can help minimize the negative effects environmental allergies have on your pet's life. If your pet has severe or chronic allergies, invest in a visit to see the dermatologist if you're able, then continue to see your regular veterinarian for maintenance visits to help reduce costs. If you know what your pet is allergic to, avoid it if at all possible. Stick to your maintenance routine and visit your veterinarian at the first sign of itching, rather than waiting until your pet develops hair loss and secondary infections which will require more costly treatment in the end. With willingness and dedication, it is possible to help your allergic pet live a healthy and relatively itch-free life.
Dermatology for Animals, "Frequently Asked Questions,", accessed on July 23, 2013.
SheKnows, "The 411 on Dogs and Food Allergies,", accessed on July 23, 2013.