Your pet’s itchy skin is more than an annoyance. Allergies commonly cause skin problems for pets, and can lead to ear issues, open wounds, and infection, if not properly addressed. Our Palm Valley Veterinary Center team wants to offer information about diagnosing and managing these issues should your pet be affected.

What allergies commonly affect pets?

Similar to humans, pets can be allergic to almost anything, but the most common culprits include fleas, food, and environmental allergens, which usually make the pet extremely itchy. Pets typically scratch, bite, lick, and rub excessively trying to relieve the irritation, and many pets also develop secondary ear infections, which can complicate diagnosis and management. Specific information about each allergy includes:

  • Fleas — When a flea takes a blood meal from your pet, they inject saliva, which contains histamine-like compounds that can trigger an inflammatory response in sensitive pets. Only one flea is needed to cause a reaction, and many pets manifest signs only 15 minutes after being bitten. Flea bite allergy is the most common cause of skin problems in pets.
  • Food — Pets can develop hypersensitivities to ingredients in their food. Proteins, carbohydrates, preservatives, and dyes are potential food allergens, but beef, chicken, dairy, egg, soy, and wheat are the most commonly reported allergens. 
  • Atopy — Atopy is the term used to describe environmental allergies in pets. Atopic pets are allergic to household substances such as plant pollens, house dust mites, and mold spores.

How are pet allergies diagnosed?

Many pets are affected by concurrent allergies, which can make identifying the causative agent difficult. Some diagnostic tools include:

  • Allergy features — Allergic pets can exhibit similar signs, but specific allergen features may help indicate the cause of the pet’s reaction. These include:
  • Fleas — The lower back is considered the flea bite zone, and most pets affected by a flea bite allergy have itchy skin and sometimes red, scabby flea bite lesions around their rump, tail base, and groin area. Pets can be affected at any age, and while fleas are more active in the warmer months, they can be problematic all year long, especially in areas such as Florida. 
  • Food — Food allergic cats typically scratch around their face and neck, causing scabs and hair loss, and food allergic dogs usually exhibit facial itching, foot chewing, an itchy anal area, and recurrent ear infections. The itching is not seasonal, and usually starts when the pet is younger than 6 months or older than 5 years of age. Intestinal signs, such as vomiting and diarrhea, may also be present, and the pet typically doesn’t respond to corticosteroid treatment.
  • Atopy — Atopic pets are typically affected on the face, abdomen, armpits, feet, and anal area. They usually exhibit signs between 1 and 3 years of age, and most commonly live indoors. Itchiness in atopic pets responds rapidly to corticosteroid treatment. Atopic pets also commonly have chronic or recurrent skin yeast infections. 
  • Food trial — When a food allergy is suspected, a food trial must be performed to diagnose the problem and determine the causative ingredient. Factors include:
  • Hypoallergenic diet — Choices for your pet’s test diet include a novel protein and a hydrolyzed protein. The novel diet involves a single protein source that your pet has never eaten. Options are plentiful on the market and include venison, duck, and kangaroo. A hydrolyzed diet involves breaking down the protein source into small molecules that don’t trigger the immune system. 
  • Length — Most veterinary dermatologists recommend keeping your pet on a trial diet for 8 to 12 weeks.
  • Consistency — While on the food trial, your pet must not eat any non-sanctioned food, including treats and medicated chews. 
  • Allergy testing —When atopy is suspected, allergy testing is performed to help determine the causative allergen. Intradermal tests and blood tests can identify the substances causing your pet’s immune response.

How are pet allergies treated?

Pet allergies can’t be cured, but frequently can be managed to alleviate the pet’s discomfort. Treatment strategies include:

  • Providing flea control — Flea control is critical when treating an allergic pet. All fleas must be removed from your pet and their environment, and they should remain on a year-round flea preventive. 
  • Avoiding allergens — When possible, ensure your pet does not encounter the substance or ingredient that causes their allergic response. 
  • Bathing — Regular bathing can help remove allergens from your pet’s skin, but bathing more than once a week can dry out their skin and exacerbate their itchiness, so wipe down your pet’s fur with damp cloths between baths.
  • Treating secondary infections — Secondary skin and ear infections must be treated with an appropriate antimicrobial. 
  • Steroids — Steroids are commonly used to manage severe inflammation and itchiness, but they should not be used long-term, to avoid side effects such as immune system suppression.
  • Anti-itch medications — Several anti-itch medications can help manage your pet’s itchiness, and our veterinary team will determine the appropriate medication for your itchy pet.
  • Allergen specific immunotherapy — For atopic pets, allergy shots are the treatment of choice. This treatment involves administering gradually increasing allergen amounts to desensitize your pet to the problematic substance. Allergy shots typically require 6 to 12 months to work, but most pets improve with the treatment.

Determining the cause of your pet’s itchy skin is important to ensure you provide relief. If your pet is scratching incessantly, contact our Palm Valley Veterinary Center team, so we can identify the problem and devise an appropriate management strategy.