Our pets can suffer from a variety of allergies in much the same way that we do. The most common allergies are to substances in the environment that can range from pollens, grass seeds, fleas, and house dust mites just to name a few. The most common presentation is an itchy pet. We all know how frustrating it is for the whole family if Fluffy is not sleeping because he is scratching himself all night long. This leads to most of the family not sleeping either.
So, first thing on Monday morning, Fluffy is at the vet for help, in the hope that everyone in the house will also get some much-needed sleep again. What makes it difficult for the vet to tell you what is causing the allergy is that a lot of allergies present in the same way and are difficult to differentiate from each other. Our vet will need to obtain a very thorough history to try and figure out the puzzle. This will include the duration and severity of the symptoms, the environment your pet is mostly in, the diet your pet is currently on and any supplements and treats that are fed. In my experience the owner is often the one who pinpoints the allergy as they can observe their pet and see what seems to trigger the symptoms.
The most common allergy seen is an allergy to flea bites. Your pet does not have to be covered in fleas to suffer from this. A single flea bite from a stray flea could trigger the cycle of itching and scratching. Luckily, with all the tick and flea products available to us today, flea allergies are much easier to control than 20 years ago. Pets can also have allergies to food. It may be necessary to try a novel protein (a new protein source your pet has not eaten before such as duck or turkey) or a gluten free diet to rule this out. Be wary of thinking that “beef” flavoured food only contains beef. You will need to check the list of ingredients to determine what is in a bag of dog or cat food. At Animal Matters we stock a variety of diets to help you achieve this. Speak to one of our vets or receptionists about which foods will qualify.
Food can also play a large role in improving the body’s ability to cope with allergies even if it is not the food causing the allergy. Some dogs need a higher percentage or better quality of protein to cope with their allergy. As protein quality and quantity is one of the main drives to determine food costs, it can often be on the lower margins in many commercial dog foods. Reading and understanding labels can be difficult and frustrating, but I would encourage all owners to have a look at what is in their pet’s food by turning that bag over and reading the composition and ingredient lists. Protein percentage can vary from 18 to 31% in dog foods and 26-37% in cat food. As you can tell cats need a much higher amount of proteins than dogs. This is the reason dogs like to eat the cat’s food whenever the opportunity arises. These examples of percentages are for dry kibble food and will be vastly different in tinned or wet foods. The higher protein percentage is one of the main reasons that many dogs skin irritation improves on raw food diets.
Once we have examined the animal and have obtained all the history that we need, we next need to start on a treatment plan. We cannot cure allergies. They are there to stay. Our aim is to decrease the pet’s irritation due to itching and give them a more comfortable and good quality of life. So what options are available to us? Unfortunately, most allergies are treated by suppressing the immune system’s ability to respond to the allergen. A steroid called prednisolone has long been the main drug used to achieve this. It is cheap and affective but comes with a fair amount of side effects that will affect both you and your pet’s lifestyle. Some dogs respond very well to other classes of immune suppressive drugs such as Atopica and Apoquel. These drugs tend to have less side effects than the steroids but tend to be costly. Antihistamines can also be used with varying responses. We may need to try a combination of these drugs to get your pet comfortable. Is suppressing the immune system then our only way of helping our pets?
Fortunately, there are also other options available to help to alleviate the itching. As already mentioned, diet can play an important role in helping the skin to cope with allergies. Supplements like omega 3 fatty acids can decrease the itching. Good quality fish oils are the most effective at this. Hypo allergenic shampoo can also be helpful to remove allergens from the skin. Acupuncture has proved to be immensely helpful for some dogs resulting in using much lower doses of the immunosuppressive drugs.
One other avenue we can venture down is allergy testing through a blood sample. We will draw a small amount of blood from your pet which will be sent off to be tested for a variety of allergens. Once this is established a “vaccine” can be generated specifically for your pet to desensitise them to the guilty allergen. Your pet will need multiple small injections to achieve this. Many owners can administer these at home with basic training. The Animal Matters Team will be here to guide you through the process and make sure you are confident to carry on with any home treatment.
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