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Itching and Scratching… dog gone it!

Itching and scratching is by far one of the most common reasons that pets and their humans make a trip in to see the veterinarian. While Fido certainly has a hard time sleeping at night while fighting the itch, they can keep everyone in the house up with scratching and licking through the wee hours. Allergies are a likely cause of the trouble, and fortunately there are many tricks of the trade that can help our furry friends through the problem.

 

Pet Allergies

An allergy develops after a pet has been exposed to a substance, and the body develops a state of over reactivity or hypersensitivity. Over time this results in sensitization and an inappropriate response when exposed to the allergen, or allergic substance. Exposure to the allergen results in the activation of the immune system and release of histamine causing redness, swelling, and itching. We do not fully understand why some pets (and humans) develop allergies while others do not, but there is an inherited component, as some allergies seem to run in families. Allergies can be due to environmental allergens, such as plants and insects, or food allergies. Many pets experience some level of itching year-round, but often experience a seasonal worsening in the spring and fall as this is time of year with the highest pollen counts for the Prescott area. For example, while many humans are allergic to juniper in the early spring and react with itchy noses and watery eyes, our furry friends will react with itchy bellies and feet.

 

How are pet allergies diagnosed?

A diagnosis of allergies starts with a good history and physical exam. Allergies in pets present slightly differently than in humans, as the most common presentation is itching of the abdomen, ears, and feet. Less commonly a dog may show a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, or coughing. The most common time of first presentation for allergies is 1-3 years of age. A veterinarian can help assess the timing of the itching, the pattern, and any underlying conditions that may be contributing. In many cases the history will help guide therapy as well, as the therapy for seasonal allergies will vary from a pet who is itchy year-round. It is important to rule out issues such as external parasites and skin infections that may be complicating or causing the itch. Allergy testing is available either by intradermal, or skin testing, or by submitting a blood test that will evaluate your pet’s response and sensitivity to a panel of antigens. Each allergy panel is specific to our geographic area, to include allergens that dogs in the southwest are most likely to be exposed to.

 

How do you treat pet allergies?

Goals of treatment for allergies include decreasing exposure to known allergens, providing skin support to defend against allergens, providing relief of the itch itself, and most of all, decreasing the body’s immune response to the allergens. For most pets there is no “magic bullet” that provides perfect relief, but often it is necessary to combine therapies to create a plan to works.

  • Antihistamines: There are some over the counter medications that are a great option to try, however dogs do not seem to respond to them as well as humans as their allergy mechanism differs slightly from ours. About 30% of dogs will show a response to antihistamines, but for those pets that see even a partial response, this is a helpful option.
  • Flea/tick Prevention: Parasites are more common in the Prescott area than often thought, so it is recommended to treat any pet with itching with a flea and tick preventative to make sure any “no see-um’s” are not contributing to the itch problem.
  • Topical Treatments: A large variety of shampoos, sprays, and skin support products are available which serve two functions: to remove allergens from the skin and fur where they are a source of constant exposure, and to help improve the skin’s health so it may serve as a barrier against exposure. Weekly bathing with a quality allergy shampoo is helpful for some pets, and some pets also benefit from a brief “wipe down” with a washcloth when coming in from playing outside to remove any pesky pollens. Contrary to popular belief, it is not recommended to use oatmeal shampoo for allergic pets. While oatmeal shampoo classically is used for itching, it can be drying to a pet’s skin, which can break down the skin barrier and make itching worse.

  • Skin Support: In addition to topical therapy, skin support supplements that contain omega fatty acids can be helpful in helping to maintain healthy skin that is able to fight off allergies.
  • Prescription Products: While steroid therapy has historically been the cornerstone of allergy therapy, there has been a stream of new research and development to provide options to treat pet allergies more safely and specifically. Both injectable and oral therapies are now available that serve to decrease the allergic response and dampen the pet’s “itch pathway.” In addition, after allergy testing some pets can benefit from allergy immunotherapy, which is a schedule of desensitization medications that are tailored to a pet’s specific allergy profile.
  • Food Trial: Food allergies can present most commonly as itching of the ears, feet, and belly, and less commonly chronic vomiting and diarrhea. The most common food allergies are known to be beef, chicken, and dairy, although other proteins can cause a problem as well. The most reliable method of determining if your pet is suffering from food allergies is to complete a food trial. A food trial consists of feeding a pet either a “novel” protein diet of something foreign to the pet such as duck, or venison, or a “hydrolyzed” diet which is broken down to a state that is no longer allergenic to the dog. A diet trial must be strictly followed for 6-8 weeks, as food allergy is severely delayed in dogs, and exposure to an allergic protein can cause itching for several weeks.

Sadly for our pets, allergies and itching can be a complicated web of causes and potential treatments. But help is available in many forms, and we strive to find a plan that provides relief to everyone. It is critical to correctly diagnose the problem, and determine if any underlying or complicating issues are  contributing to your pet’s discomfort. If your pet is suffering from itching and scratching, contact us to schedule your pets exam today!

 
Megan S. Munis, DVM
Prescott Animal Hospital