Pet Doctor: Springtime allergy in pets

By Felicia Burdick-Aysenne

Springtime is upon us now and so are the much dreaded allergies -- but people are not the only ones suffering. Dogs and cats can suffer from allergies, too.

Our pets are susceptible to the same airborne allergens such as pollen, mold, grasses, plants, etc., that we are as well as other environmental allergens. They also suffer from the uncomfortable symptoms such as runny nose, watery eyes, itchiness and coughing. This ultimately can decrease the quality of your pet's life and make them miserably uncomfortable.

Allergies cause the body's immune system to overreact to a foreign substance such as pollen or even flea saliva. People with allergies tend to sneeze and have runny noses as we respond to histamine released by specific immune cells. This is due to the reactions of histamine with receptors in our nose and upper airways. However, our pets react a bit differently. Dogs and cats have fewer histamine receptors in their nose and a lot more in their skin. This is why our pets are often seen scratching. The more our pets scratch, the more histamine is released in the skin and more itchiness is caused. This constant scratching can cause damage to the skin and lead to secondary bacterial or yeast infections that can cause more misery.

Most common signs with skin allergies include:

-- Scratching, biting, and/or chewing at their skin

-- Scabs or open sores on the skin ("hot spots," often from scratching)

-- Hair loss

-- reddened skin (inflammation)

-- rubbing on vertical objects or rubbing their bodies on the ground

Another common condition is atopy, in which allergens that are present in the environment can cause an allergic reaction in the skin of dogs and cat. With atopy, your pet's immune system overreacts to an inhaled or airborne allergen. This condition can be inherited in certain breeds of dogs but a genetic component is still not understood in cats. Atopy is the second most common type of allergy in dogs and cats, with flea allergy dermatitis being number one. Flea saliva can be the culprit of intense itchiness in many pets, so make sure to help prevent this by using a flea preventative.

Dogs and cats with allergies frequently have issues with their ears as well. When allergies affect our pets, their ear canals can become inflamed or infected with yeast and/or bacteria.

Symptoms commonly associated with ear problems due to allergies include:

-- Scratching at the ears

-- Shaking the head

-- Foul odor or discharge from the ears (sign that infection is present)

-- Loss of hair around the ears

-- Ear hematomas, when blood accumulates in the flap of the ear (or pinna)

If your pet has year-round allergies and you do not see much improvement with medications, your pet may have food allergies. Food allergies take time to develop and are not likely to be caused by recent diet change. Most pets who have food allergies have been eating the same food for years without any problems. The main protein or carbohydrate source in the food may be the source of the problem.

Treatment for allergies may include anti-histamines or possibly steroids for a short period of time in some cases. However, allergies are not a curable condition, but they can be well managed with a joint effort from the pet owners and their veterinary team. Remember to consult with your veterinarian before trying any home remedies, which may be toxic or harmful. Your veterinarian can help to find the best treatment options to reduce your pet's discomfort level by using antihistamines, prescription medications, special diets and shampoos, as well as specific allergy testing if needed.

As you can see, allergies can present themselves in many different ways and can affect your pets differently. Awareness of your pet's allergies is the first step to help your loved pets be more comfortable and live a longer, happier life.

I hope y'all have a happy Easter with your pets!

Dr. Felicia Burdick-Aysenne, a veterinarian at Bienville Animal Medical Center in Ocean Springs, encourages questions for this column. Write to South Mississippi Veterinary Medical Association, 20005 Pineville Road, Long Beach, MS 39560, and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.