Can pets develop allergies?
The immune system is a useful weapon that protects us from foreign substances by mounting an immune response to fight disease, bacteria, whatever it might be. The trouble is that on occasion the body gets it wrong and becomes hypersensitive to substances that pose no real threat. It can be really confusing and quite surprising for owners whose pet has been healthy all their life, when they suddenly develop symptoms of an allergy later down the line. It often seems to come out of nowhere and determining the specific allergen (cause) can be quite a challenge. We are often asked if these pets always had the allergy, somehow undetected, or is it possible that they develop one as they age?
Well, just like people, it is also quite possible for a pet to develop these things later in life too. Pets can be inherently predisposed to do so in fact. Experts don’t fully understand why some people and pets find certain substances so problematic and neither do they really know why onset of allergies can be delayed. Allergens can be quite specific to the individual, so trying to isolate the troublesome pollen or mould spore or protein for example, can be a laborious task, but one well worth the effort when you realise the positive impact you can make to a pets life.
One way to divide feline and canine allergens up is to place them under the umbrellas of environmental and dietary. Environmental allergens range from dust mites, to pollens, to cleaning products and even some plastics. Food allergens commonly include beef, lamb, dairy and wheat. A subdivision of environmental allergens are those which occur seasonally and cat and dog owners might find that certain times of year bring out the itches in their pet. Interestingly there are even some breeds of dog that are more likely to suffer from allergies including cocker spaniels, German shepherds and West Highland White Terriers.
There is a vast array of cat and dog allergens out there which manifest themselves in a number of different symptoms. Most allergic reactions in dogs will cause itchy skin, which becomes increasingly sore once scratched. Often the pet’s attention (and scratching) is focused on one area, often the limbs, and so the itch-scratch cycle becomes a difficult one to break. If ever you’ve seen a pet going at their feet, nibbling at their toes, you’ll know just how sore and uncomfortable they can become through self-trauma. This is often due to a condition called “atopic dermatitis” and is something which cats can suffer from too. More commonly than dogs, however, cats can add hay fever-type symptoms to their list of ailments when an allergen is present, similar to how humans are commonly affected by pollens. Sore and itchy ears can be a sign of allergies in both cats and dogs, an affliction that can drive a pet to distraction. Vomiting and diarrhoea can result in particular in response to food allergies, although it is less common than itchy skin. Some allergies are so severe that left untreated, they become a serious welfare issue.
Diagnosis is not always a straightforward process and will usually involve a detailed history taking. ‘What time of year do the symptoms flare up?’, ‘What is your pet fed?’ and ‘What sort of treats are they given?’ are just a few of the questions that you can expect from our vets as they try to determine the cause. Where environmental allergens are suspected, an intradermal skin test may be recommended where tiny amounts of numerous common allergens are placed just beneath the skin and the patient’s innate reaction to them is monitored. The body will mount an overreaction to any substance that the pet is allergic to.
For food allergies, a useful diagnostic process is the exclusion diet. Your vet will recommend a hypoallergenic diet and ask that your pet is fed this and fed this alone initially (that’s right, no treats!). Gradually, additional foodstuffs are introduced one by one, and your pet is monitored for recurrence of symptoms. When the symptoms return, you can attribute your pet’s allergy to a specific food item.
Apart from keeping your pet separate from diagnosed allergens, there are many other ways that we can help pets with allergies. So if you believe your pet to be suffering in this way, please get in touch for advice.