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'Tis the Season for Pet Allergies
Illinois Ag Connection - 03/24/2023

Pets may be plagued with allergies at any time of the year, according to Dr. Jennifer Clegg, a veterinarian who is completing a residency in dermatology at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. If you suspect allergies are bugging your pet, Dr. Clegg recommends that you see your local veterinarian.

What are the signs that your pet may have an allergy?

"Licking and chewing paws or limbs, scratching ears, shaking the head or face, rubbing the body on rugs or carpets or furniture, and rubbing the hind end on rugs or carpets are all common signs of allergies," says Dr. Clegg. "You may notice that the excessive licking or scratching has led to hair loss, or even that your pet is pulling out its hair, which happens mainly in cats."

Narrowing the Diagnosis Your veterinarian will eliminate the most common possible allergies first. Parasites that live outside the body, such as fleas and mites, frequently cause allergies in pets. A flea and tick preventive medication prescribed by your veterinarian should stop this problem. However, if this medication does not get rid of the itchiness, the next step is to consider whether your pet's food is the cause.

"Some allergies arise when the pet develops hypersensitivity to the protein in their diet," explains Dr. Clegg. "In these cases, we implement a diet trial, replacing the protein source in the diet with either a prescription hydrolyzed protein diet or a novel protein diet for 8 to 12 weeks.

"By the end of the diet trial, the pet should be symptom free if the protein was the culprit. If the previous diet is then restored and the symptoms return, a food allergy diagnosis is confirmed."

A successful diet trial requires strict adherence by pet and client. No flavored medications, supplements, toothpastes, snacks, or other food should be given during the trial period.

"Even oral heartworm or flea and tick preventatives must be avoided and a topical product used instead while the pet is on the diet trial," says Dr. Clegg.

If the diet trial doesn't eliminate the allergy symptoms, then the pet probably has an environmental allergy.

Unfortunately, in most cases the source of an environmental allergy cannot be eliminated. After all, Dr. Clegg says, "You can't remove all your trees from your yard or remove all your neighbor's trees."

In these cases, the pet's symptoms must be managed instead. Outdoor allergens vary with the season, if you live in a part of the world that goes through seasonal changes.

Both dogs and cats suffer from springtime allergies, most commonly when trees begin to pollinate. (Although cats are mainly indoor, pollen from trees is in the air and can enter the home.)

In the summer, the main pollen comes from grasses. "Kentucky blue, timothy, orchard, and rye grasses commonly contribute to grass pollen allergies in the Midwest," notes Dr. Clegg. "And in central Illinois, corn pollen presents a problem for allergic pets during harvest time."

During fall, weed pollination and ragweed are the main sources of allergens. Additionally, mold spores tend to rise in the fall due to falling leaves and dying plants. Molds thrive on decomposing plant matter and their spores can float in the air.

"For some pets, wiping the paws clean after they come inside may help, but this alone will not be curative," she says. "However, veterinarians have a variety of prescription medications at their disposal to help manage allergy symptoms. Treatment is tailored to the individual pet."

Winter typically puts an end to outdoor environmental allergens, but mold spores may continue to be an issue. Indoor environmental allergens are a problem year-round. Veterinarians most commonly see allergies to dust or storage mites.

"Unfortunately, even if you vacuum your house every day and are the most immaculate housekeeper on earth, you will never entirely rid your house of dust mites," says Dr. Clegg.

Parting Advice So, what can you do for your itchy pet with an environmental allergy?

Dr. Clegg recommends keeping your pet on year-round flea and tick preventatives. "Even just one flea bite can exacerbate allergy symptoms," she says.

She also advises against giving over-the-counter medication to pets without a veterinarian's approval. Over-the-counter antihistamines may not be effective on allergic pets, and certain decongestants can be toxic to pets.

Because most environmental allergens cannot be avoided, the best way to keep allergic pets comfortable is to stay in close communication with your local veterinarian.


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