Monday, August 25, 2008

Help For Your Pet's Allergies

Many pet owners don't recognize the signs of allergies in pets. People generally think of sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes as signs of allergies, but many animals with allergies have different clinical symptoms.

By Jennifer Blair , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing-Last update: August 14, 2008 - 3:39 PM

Many pet owners don't recognize the signs of allergies in pets. People generally think of sneezing, runny noses and watery eyes as signs of allergies, but many animals with allergies have different clinical symptoms.

Itching, licking and chewing

Pets with allergies can be extremely itchy and will often lick, scratch and chew at the affected areas until they cause self-trauma and secondary infections. The most common areas include the muzzle, eyes, ears, feet, belly, butt and flanks. Often, pets are brought to the veterinarian with secondary complications such as bacterial and yeast infections. These problems cause further itching and discomfort, and must be treated in addition to addressing the underlying allergies.

Two types of allergies

There are two main types of allergies in dogs and cats. Atopy is sensitivity to environmental allergens such as pollens, dust and molds. A food allergy is an allergy to a specific food item or ingredient. Atopy is more common, but clinical signs for both types of allergens are similar and many animals have a combination of both.

Since allergies can resemble other skin diseases, it is best to consult a veterinarian. Your veterinarian will perform an examination and may recommend several basic diagnostic tests such as skin cytology, skin scrapings or cultures.

Food allergies

Food allergies can develop at any age. To diagnose a food allergy, an elimination diet trial must be performed. A prescription hypoallergenic diet or a diet with a single protein (venison, rabbit, fish, duck) and carbohydrate (potato, sweet potato, pea) is fed exclusively for 8 – 12 weeks. During this time, your pet cannot have any other treats, table scraps, rawhides or flavored medications. If the elimination diet is not fed exclusively, the results will be inconclusive. A decrease in itchiness is considered a positive response, though in pets with both allergy types, this response can be difficult to assess.

Environmental allergies

If a diet change did not help, it is likely that your pet suffers from atopy. The best test available for atopy is the intradermal skin test. This test involves a veterinary dermatologist injecting small amounts of various allergens under your pet's skin and observing whether there is a reaction. A blood test is also available that measures the level of allergen-specific antibodies in the blood stream, but it tends to be less sensitive.

Determining appropriate treatment

Despite the many medications and topical therapies available for the treatment of allergies, no magic treatment exists that works for every pet. Therapy is generally tailored to each individual. All allergic pets should have good flea control, as flea allergies can worsen itching significantly. Pets with mild allergies may be managed with topical therapies alone, including shampoos, conditioners, topical sprays or ointments, and proper ear care. Omega-3 fatty acids are also commonly prescribed.

For moderately allergic patients, antihistamines may be necessary. Examples include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), chlorpheniramine, hydroxyzine and clemastine. Pets with severe allergies generally need steroid medications or cyclosporine (Atopica) to control their discomfort, though these medications have more serious side effects. It is important to consult your veterinarian prior to giving any medication to your pet, as even over-the-counter medications can have serious side effects.

For atopy that is unresponsive to symptomatic therapy, allergy injections are available. These injections are created from the allergens detected on the intradermal skin test or blood test. Systematically giving these injections helps to desensitize your pet to the offending allergens.

It can be a timely and expensive process to find the appropriate allergy treatment. Ideally, helping your pet avoid the offending allergens is the best strategy. In practice, however, this is often difficult to achieve. There is no cure for allergies. However, using a combination of treatments, most pets can be very comfortable.

Jennifer Blair is a veterinarian and the owner of St. Francis Animal & Bird Hospital in Roseville.

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