Spring allergy season is already in full-force, with many of us experiencing the runny eyes, stuffy noses, and congestion typical of seasonal environmental allergies. Our pets, too, can experience environmental allergies, though in addition to the runny eyes and sneezing that we experience, they typically manifest their seasonal allergies through itchy skin and/or ears. Itchiness may manifest itself through scratching, biting, chewing, licking, and/or rubbing.
Allergies themselves cause itching and redness but in our pets, it is often the secondary infections that make matters even worse. Bacteria and yeast are part of the normal healthy flora of the skin of both dogs and cats. With an underlying allergy, the skin’s barrier function is affected, and these organisms are able to “set up shop,” leading to further itchiness and inflammation of the skin. As such, chronic/recurrent yeast infections are often a hallmark of allergic skin disease in our pets.
Unfortunately, diagnosing an environmental allergy is not always cut-and-dry. Many other things can cause similar symptoms — other types of allergies (fleas, food, contact), metabolic or autoimmune conditions, and other skin diseases can sometimes mimic the symptoms of environmental allergies. Your veterinarian will likely ask a number of questions related to the history involving your pet’s symptoms.
One of the strongest support factors for an environmental allergy is a seasonal component to the symptoms — most dogs with environmental allergies will be significantly less symptomatic during the late fall and winter months. Additionally, environmental allergies can often get worse with age, or may be worse in certain environments (unfortunately, the D.C./Northern Virginia area is one of the worst for allergies).
Intradermal skin testing is the gold standard for diagnosing environmental allergies. This is typically done by a veterinary dermatologist. However, in recent years some of the available blood testings for environmental allergies have become more reliable and provide another means of more definitive diagnosis that can be done with your regular veterinarian.
When it comes to “treating” environmental allergies, the most important thing to realize is that allergies are never cured, but are instead managed. A multimodal approach is most often the most successful. Potential therapeutic options include: medications, supplements, bathing and allergy “shots.”
Medications that we often reach for include antihistamines (though their action is not nearly as reliable in cats and dogs as we’d like), corticosteroids (to help decrease the inflammatory/allergic responses), immunomodulatory drugs such as cyclosporine/Atopica or Apoquel, and often antibiotics or antifungals to address the secondary infections. Fish oil supplements are often recommended to patients with allergies as higher doses of omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and they can improve the overall health of the skin and fur.
Frequent bathing with a medicated shampoo to cut down on the number of allergens, yeast, and bacteria on the skin often allows us to use less drugs to keep a pet comfortable (though is often more feasible in dogs than cats!). And, finally, non-pharmacologic methods with immunotherapy (allergy “shots”/vaccinations) can be very helpful with chronic management of environmental allergies, to reduce the haywire response of the immune system to a normal stimulus.
We recommend talking with your veterinarian at the first sign of excessive itching/scratching in your pet. Fortunately, the options for managing environmental allergies are improving all the time, but it still remains a very frustrating condition since it can never be cured. Some patience and understanding of the underlying condition can go a long way in making the condition more approachable and manageable.