Spring! What a Wonderful time in Alaska unless your pet has allergies!

Just like humans, the emergence of plant life in the spring and summer can trigger the allergies in your pet to flare up.  Although the airborne allergens don’t limit themselves to the spring and summer, this is the season that things are worst.  Unlike humans though who are known for itchy eyes and sneezing, most often the symptoms our dogs show are related to skin inflammation- dog’s scratching and chewing at themselves, skin infections and ear infections.  When the allergy is due to things that are airborne, this is called “atopy”.  While we can't avoid pollen and allergens entirely we can cope with them using a lot of different tools. Other types of allergies are food allergies, contact allergies and insect bite allergies- while some of the treatments are the same, we’ll cover atopy in this blog.

Which Pets Develop Atopy?

Atopy is considered a heritable trait.  It is found in dogs and cats of all breeds however the incidence is higher in certain breeds.  The most well known breeds include Boxers, West highland White Terriers along with other terriers, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Pugs and many more. 

When Does Atopy Show Up?

Most dogs- about 70%- who are going to have seasonal allergies start up with symptoms sometime between ages 1-3 years however they can develop later in life as well.

Spring and summer are the most common seasons to see these allergies however some animals show signs year round.  Over the years the portion of the year that an individual has trouble with tends to increase so that some pets end up having symptoms year round. 

How do I know if my pet has atopy?

The diagnosis of allergies is not a single test but a compilation of information about your pet.  Looking at what parts of the pet’s skin are itchy and inflamed helps.  Most dogs with atopy have the worst issues with the skin on their face, ears, belly, armpits, under the tail and the feet.  Here are some pictures of how different allergies can look on pets - all of these dogs and cats have some degree of allergies:

                      Diffuse hair loss over dogs back               Red skin irritation over belly and armpits     Patchy alopecia/crusts on back

                                       Reddened skin/infection present             Pustules on Chin and Muzzle                                         Ear Infection

                       Hair Loss/Skin irritation on Abdomen                  Ear irritation and Infection               Hair loss around eyes and Irritation/Infection


Our veterinarians will take samples to rule out concurrent skin infections.  Many dogs and cats with allergies have had inflamed skin for so long that the normal skin defenses that protect against infections are unable to keep bacteria and yeast at bay.  These infections can cause the pet to itch as well and need to be treated.

Intradermal allergy testing: This is sometimes performed to determine which allergens a pet reacts to and is considered the most accurate allergy testing method.  These are performed by shaving an area to expose the skin and a series of small injections containing small amounts of allergy causing substances.  These are done in rows and the size of the bump that forms helps tell if the body is having an excessive reaction to each substance.  With this information we can tell which pollens the pet is hypersensitive to.  The main intent of finding out what your pet is reacting to is to be able to develop injections to try to desensitize the pet to those particular things.

Antibody testing for allergies: This is a blood test that measures the levels of certain antibodies to pollens, fungi and other allergens.  By knowing that a pet has really high levels of the special kind of antibodies linked with allergies, we can be suspicious the pet is allergic to that substance.  These results need to be analyzed by the veterinarian carefully though, as having high antibodies doesn’t always mean allergy. 

Steroid response:  Allergies tend to respond very well to the medications called steroids.  The most well known of these is prednisone.  Unfortunately, many other causes of itching can also respond to steroids so this is not conclusive, but is merely suggestive that a pet has allergies. 

Diet trial:  While this is to detect dietary allergies, a diet trial is sometimes performed even when atopy is suspected to try to see if foods are playing a role as well.  Many pets have both atopy and food allergies.

Treating Allergies:

Most often, successful treatment of allergies requires many simultaneous things rather than one “magic pill”.  Below are some of the most common things to do:


Try to keep them indoors as much as possible during the worse seasons and monitor the pollen reports if you know what your pet reacts to. When outdoors, try to keep them off grass and other plants as these can get through the fur to the skin.  While we used to believe that allergens like pollen gained entrance to the body primarily through the respiratory tract, we now know that a large amount are directly absorbed into the skin’s surface.  Keeping a pet off high allergen surfaces like your lawn grass may reduce the amount of pollen on his skin.  If you can, it is also good to give your pet a rinse off in clean water if they've been outside on a high pollen day.  For some animals who particularly have problems with their feet, just rinsing the paws can help.  You can also place booties on your pet's feet - just be sure that these booties fit appropriately and are not too tight to cut off circulation.  Not one bootie exists for all pets!                                                  

Topical Therapies:    

Many pets can benefit from medicated shampoos and coat conditioners to control itching or infections that may be prescribed by one of our  veterinarians.  It’s important to keep in mind that the instructions for these often include leaving the lather on the dog or cat for a certain amount of time.  This is very important to get the best effect.


Allergy Suppression:

There are many medications that help to suppress the itching of allergies. 

  1. Antihistamines- veterinary dermatologists see about 10-20% of dogs respond to a given antihistamine.There are several that can be used though and trying a few before deciding what works for your pet is often worthwhile.These are often very safe, inexpensive medications but they may not work for every dog. Also, they are unlikely to be 100% effective alone, and are often more effective when used with other treatments.  Cats often respond better than dogs but oral medications are often difficult for an owner to give to a cat long term.

  2. Steroids- as mentioned above, these are fantastic at suppressing the itching but are often only used for short term control since they have several clinical negative side effects when used for a long time.They are sometimes the best thing though to “douse the fire” when a pet is severely flared up.

  3. Cyclosporine- This is an immune system suppressant.  After all, allergies are a version of the immune system being hyper-reactive to something.This medication can work well with fewer side effects than the steroids but can take some time to work and, for the moment, can be costly- especially for large dogs.

  4. Apoquel- This is a drug that acts on some of the chemical mediators of itching in the body.  It’s relatively new but has been working very well for some patients.There has been such a high demand when it was first released that the company has had difficulty having enough product to fill orders; they promise to have more by May 2015.

  5. Omega 3 Fatty Acids- these are the fats found in flax and fish oils. There are two primary ones- EPA and DHA.  We recommend Welactin.  

  6. Antibiotics and anti-fungals- While these don’t directly treat allergies, the tendency for allergic pets to get these infections is significant and the infections can add to the discomfort and cause excessive itching.  By treating these as needed we can significantly help your pets comfort

Allergy hyposensitization Immunotherapy:

This treatment can occur after allergy testing has been done to determine what exact things are affecting the pet.  Extracts are made of the very things that your pet shows sensitivity to and these are given by injection under the skin.  The injections start out with very small doses but given quite frequently and build up to higher doses eventually given approximately once monthly.  If this works for your pet, it tends to be a great option with few side effects.  Unfortunately, this attempt to retrain the immune system to ignore the allergens doesn’t work all the time.  Approximately 25-30% of pets do not respond to the treatment, and about another 25-30% will still need some other treatments beyond the injections to keep them comfortable.  Hyposensitization therapy will take 6-12 months to take effect so often pets will need some management in the meanwhile to keep things under control until then. 

As you can see, allergies are a complex issue for pets and range in severity from a minor annoyance to a terrible discomfort.  We would love to have the chance to discuss this with you if you feel your pet may have allergies and help make him or her enjoy a more comfortable life!