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Why is My Pet Itchy?

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Why is My Pet Itchy?

Pets, like people, can have allergies which means you may see them scratching, licking their feet, or chewing on their fur.   An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system is hypersensitive to a particular substance called an allergen.  The three most frequent types of allergies pets can experience are listed below in order of occurrence:

  • Flea saliva – the most common insect allergen in dogs and one of the most frequently diagnosed allergens in cats, flea saliva is transmitted when a flea bites your pet.  Flea allergies can occur year round, depending on where you live.  Lesions on dogs can be found on the lower back, tip of the tail, or the inner thighs while lesions on cats are typically found on the back, neck, and face.  Our doctors will look for live fleas or flea dirt and may recommend additional diagnostic testing.

    Treatment includes removing all fleas from the environment and preventing re-exposure to these pesky parasites.  If a flea problem is suspected, we’ll recommend you thoroughly vacuum carpets and rugs, wash all fabrics in the home, and administer year-round flea medication to your pet.  Please consult with one of our doctors or veterinary care team members before considering any chemical sprays or foggers.
  • Environmental – allergens found in the environment include molds, dust mites, mildew, and tree, grass or weed pollens.  Pets who are hypersensitive to outdoor allergens are typically more pruritic (itchy) from spring through fall, depending on the specific allergy.  Pets who are hypersensitive to indoor allergens will usually exhibit symptoms throughout the year.  In either case, they may scratch, lick or chew on their legs and feet or rub their face on carpeted or upholstered surfaces.  If your pet is diagnosed with environmental allergies, treatment recommendations will include supportive care and long-term management.

    For mild cases, antihistamines, Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids, or special shampoos may be recommended to provide immediate relief and help your pet feel more comfortable.  Short-term courses of corticosteroids can also be effective at stopping itchiness but are not recommended as a long-term treatment option.  Prescription medications including Atopica – which targets immune cells involved in an allergic reaction – and Apoquel – which targets the cytokines involved with allergic skin itch and inflammation – have proven to be effective in dogs with environmental allergies.

    Allergen-specific immunotherapy (ASIT) may also be recommended for pets that have undergone intradermal skin testing to determine which allergens are problematic.  Pets treated with ASIT receive injections of gradually increasing quantities of one or more allergen extracts and it can be an effective treatment option when avoiding contact with multiple allergens isn’t possible.
  • Food – protein allergens in beef, chicken, lamb, eggs and dairy products are typically responsible for a pet’s food allergy, although only 1% of all dog and cat skin diseases are due to nutrition sources.  Cats and dogs that are allergic to one or more protein allergens exhibit symptoms year round.  Similar to flea saliva and environmental allergies, pets with a food protein allergy may scratch, lick or chew on their legs, inner thighs, and abdomen.  In addition, dogs with food allergies may also have recurring ear infections caused by bacteria and/or yeast.

    The most reliable diagnostic test for food allergies is a food elimination trial, using a hypoallergenic or novel protein diet as the only food source for a minimum of 8-12 weeks.  An appropriate diet trial includes a food that excludes any previously fed protein sources or contains a food with a hydrolyzed protein source.   During a food trial, all chewable flavored medication (eg., some heartworm preventatives), treats, table food or supplements must also be discontinued.  A successful dietary elimination trial results in the elimination of or a significant reduction in your pet scratching, licking and/or chewing its skin and an increase in its comfort level.

For more information about pet allergies, allergy diagnostic testing, or allergy treatment, please call us at 630-598-0600.