It’s that time of year again: everything is covered in a fine yellow layer of pollen, and we’re all rubbing our eyes and constantly sneezing. It’s spring in Northern Virginia and pollens are out en masse!
While we have addressed the topic previously, we often get asked if pets experience allergy symptoms, and the answer is a resounding yes. While pets classically manifest their allergy symptoms more through their skin (which becomes itchy, and then often secondarily infected with bacteria and/or yeast) than through the eyes and upper respiratory tract, when the pollen burden is high enough, it’s quite common to see runny eyes and mild upper respiratory symptoms such as sneezing in dogs and cats as well.
Some pets can even experience more severe symptoms such as coughing and exacerbation of conditions like feline asthma or canine bronchitis.
So, what’s to be done? And how to know if the symptoms warrant a visit to the veterinarian?
Generally, if there are symptoms involving the eyes — increased tearing/discharge, redness, itchiness, rubbing of the eyes, or swelling around the eyes — we recommend an exam to ensure that there is nothing more serious going on with the eyes as many other ophthalmologic conditions can present similarly.
Eye problems can escalate quickly, so it is typically best to have them checked out before things progress. However, in some cases, your pet’s veterinarian may be able to make recommendations for over-the-counter rinses or drops that would be appropriate.
If the symptoms are more more upper-respiratory in nature (i.e. sneezing or a clear nasal discharge) often this can be managed from home with an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or Zyrtec (cetirizine).
However, we always recommend checking with your veterinarian first for dosing information and to ensure these medications are appropriate for your pet. If there is mucoid or yellow-green discharge from the nose, coughing, or any respiratory difficulties this typically warrants an exam.
The most common manifestation of environmental allergies, however, comes in the form of skin conditions, ranging from mild itchiness (scratching and often licking/chewing at the skin and feet) to serious secondary infections by the yeast and bacteria that would otherwise normally inhabit the skin in very small numbers.
There are many ways to manage the dermatologic manifestations of environmental allergies (because they are never cured, unless by moving away from the offending allergens!), but none that work in each and every patient, so sometimes it can be a bit of trial and error.
For mild symptoms, as with mild respiratory symptoms, an OTC antihistamine, fish oils and regular bathing (to keep bacteria and yeast numbers in check, and to rinse pollens and allergens from the skin) may be helpful. In more moderate to severe cases, drugs that block the immune system’s response to allergens (such as steroids, Apoquel/oclacitinib or Atopica/cyclosporine) may be necessary to control symptoms.
There are also newer non-drug/immunotherapy options as that specifically target the itch cycle with minimal to no side effects; as well as older non-drug/immunomodulatory options such as allergy desensitization vaccines (based on skin or blood environmental allergy testing).
But even with all these supplements, bathing, OTC medication, prescription drug and immune targeted options out there we still find that every pet is different and likely to have different levels of responses to specific measures and their own combo of therapies to get them comfortable.
We often recommend keeping an “itchy” journal, on a scale of 1-10, on a regular basis (daily to weekly, depending on how symptomatic the pet is) in order to get a sense of when during the year or season a pet’s allergies tend to be the worst. With this scale, 1 is minimal to no itchiness, and 10 would be nearly constant itching, including occurring overnight and interrupting normal behaviors.
We also suggest having a good working relationship with your veterinarian to find that combination and be sure to let them know what is/is not working (which is where an actual journal comes in handy) so changes and modifications can be made quickly to reduce your pet’s discomfort.