Pets Get Seasonal Allergies Too
Much of the US may see unusually warm weather next week, perhaps heralding an early spring. For many two legged creatures, this is a mixed blessing - warmer weather but terrible allergic reactions! And your dog and cat may feel the same way.
Most seasonal allergic reactions in pets fall under what vets call atopic dermatitis, atopy for short. This is an inflammation of the skin that becomes itchy and is the result of interactions with allergens like pollen, mold and dust mites. The principal avenue of this irritation is through the skin, less so by inhalation.
ltching is the primary symptom and in some cases, there may be redness in the eyes or ears. Dogs are most sensitive on their paws, face and belly while cats can be more prone to discomfort on the face, neck and ears. Both dogs and cats will lick the affected area, sometimes biting and scratching as well. This may lead to a rash or even a small wound that scabs over. Cats especially may exhibit wheezing, sneezing or runny eyes.
Atopy can be difficult to diagnose as fleas and food may also cause a similar allergic reaction. The general rule of thumb is: if your pet has symptoms year round and you live in a climate that has distinct seasons, a food or flea allergy is the culprit. Complicating this simple rule is that allergic reactions like licking or scratching need to reach a threshold before that behavior is triggered. So it is possible that a low level food allergy, when combined with a slight allergy to ragweed or other pollens, can become a full blown allergic reaction. Either irritant on its own is not sufficient.
Recommended treatments are not markedly different than those recommended for humans who suffer from seasonal allergies.
►Avoid pollen, dust mites, mold and other irritants
The common recommendation for humans is to wear a hat, light jacket and sunglasses while outdoors. Clearly that is not going to be practical for a dog or cat. Instead, pet parents should try to avoid placing their pet in a situation where they are exposed to significant quantities of allergens.
- keep pets inside when cutting grass or weeds,
- reduce time outside on days of high pollen counts (check Pollen.com)
- don't let your dog (or cat) run through brush and tall weeds
- change hvac filters regularly
- do not vacuum your entire house at once - put your pets in the area you are not cleaning and allow several hours before letting them back in the now clean rooms
- clean bedding regularly by washing the covering in very hot water.
- carpets can be home for dust mites - keep your pets off or consider wood flooring!
- keep pets away from damp areas such as basements and crawl spaces
- avoid flowering house plants
Human seasonal allergy sufferers are advised to shower often, especially hair, to remove pollen as soon as practical so to minimize the time it is in contact with the body. This also applies to our pets. Regular baths with a hypo-allergenic shampoo will help reduce the irritation your pet is feeling and prevent build up in the fur. Frequency can be adjusted to reflect both the outdoor environment (peak pollen days) and your pet's condition. A bath once every 7 to 14 days should be sufficient but twice a week may be necessary. Cat owners, because most stay indoors, do not need give baths as often. Keep in mind that cats do not like water in their face - always use a small washcloth and take care to avoid water in their ears.
It is also important to rinse off your dog's paws before he comes back in the house. Besides trying to minimize the quantity of allergens brought back into your home, dogs can be very sensitive to allergen build-up in their legs and paws.
Lets start with what pet parents can do without a prescription or vet consultation. Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to be beneficial both to the quality of a pets coat and in reducing skin irritation from allergies. Supplementation with Omega-3's is safe but does not work overnight - improvement will only be seen after many weeks or months. Other than the cost, there really is no downside to adding omega-3's to your pet's daily diet.
Another safe alternative is antihistamines. Millions (billions?) of adults use products like Zyrtec, Claratin and Allegre with few negative effects. Our feline friends seem to respond a bit better to antihistamines (65% or higher efficacy) than do dogs (30-60%). 1,2 And just like humans, cats and dogs have unique responses (or lack thereof) to different antihistamines so your vet may need to try three or four before hitting on the one that works best for your pet. Please DO NOT give your pet a human antihistamine without first discussing type and dosage with your vet! Not all antihistamines available to humans are effective in dogs and cats, though some are and may be available over the counter.
If after trying Omega-3's, anti-histamines and regular baths, your pet is still suffering or has developed a very severe reaction, a vet will suggest more powerful drugs. One that has had some success is cyclosporine. Cyclosporine is a powerful immunosuppressant originally developed for use in transplant patients. Special formulations are required for dogs and cats to assure proper absorption and distribution of the drug.
In typical does, response is good (over 60% effective after four weeks in dogs) and side effects are mostly limited to transient gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea). However, your pet should be monitored by your vet - blood work often shows elevated liver and kidney enzymes. Cats may also show high glucose levels and cyclosporine is contraindicated for cats with feline leukemia virus (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).
Unfortunately, cyclosporine requires four or more weeks to show clinical signs that it is working. Overall, it appears to have similar effectiveness as glucocorticoids (steroids). Drug manufacturers recommend reducing the dosage as soon as one month, though the most effective results were with dogs maintaining the initial dosage and frequency.
Finally, your vet may recommend some type of steroid. Many pet parents are adverse to steroids but when supervised at the lowest effective dose and shortest duration, steroids are safe and usually very effective. Side effects are more common in dogs - increased water consumption, appetite and diarrhea.
Your vet will decided whether injectable or oral delivery is to be preferred depending on how difficult it is to give your pet oral medication as well as the severity of the atopy. Injections can give immediate relief with a duration from weeks to months. That sounds great but beware, injections leave less room to adjust dosage or even stop treatment if warranted by negative side effects.
You and your vet are likely to prefer oral delivery when possible. The dosage can be better customized and if long term treatment is required (weeks, not days), the quantity and frequency may be easily reduced to find the minimum effective dose.
Seasonal allergies do not need to make your dog or cat miserable. Pet parents have a range of options to eliminate or alleviate symptoms and not all involve expensive trips to the vet or the use of strong medications. Achoo!
1. M. Eichenseer, Dr.med.vet., C. Johansen, Dr.med.vet. and R. S. Mueller, Prof. Dr.med.vet. (10/10/2013) "Efficacy of dimetinden and hydroxyzine/chlorpheniramine in atopic dogs: a randomised, controlled, double-blinded trial", Veterinary Record
2. Joya S. Griffin, Danny W. Scott, William H. Miller, Jr., and Michelle M. Tranchina (Jan 2012) "An open clinical trial on the efficacy of cetirizine hydrochloride in the management of allergic pruritus in cats", The Canadian Veterinary Journal