Spring is the season for new beginnings, warmer weather and flowers in abundance. Unfortunately, it also means the beginning of the peak allergy season for people and pets.
“These allergies occur mostly during the change of season (mostly spring and summer), but the occurrence depends on what allergen your pet is sensitive to. This can include anything, from pollen, mould spores, agricultural chemicals to detergents, fleas, food and grass,” says Dr Lizahn von Zeuner of TAH Somerset West.
Dr von Zeuner explains that an allergic reaction is an ‘over stimulation’ or ‘inappropriate’ immune response’ to a specific allergen. “The body recognises the allergen as foreign or harmful and triggers an immune reaction towards it, which can result in typical allergic reactions like itchiness, redness, warmness and swelling,” she explains.
Allergen tests are used to formulate an allergen-specific vaccine for your pet’s individual needs. These tests would either require testing the allergens on the skin itself or blood tests to determine the number of antibodies produced against the allergen. The principle behind these vaccines would be to try and induce tolerance and decrease the sensitivity to the allergen.
“In the past, these tests have not been very specific to South Africa and results had been unreliable, but with time these tests are showing more promising results and I would recommend you consult with your local vet for more information,” adds Dr von Zeuner.
What makes allergies more difficult for veterinarians is that clinical signs are very different between dogs and cats. A dog will often develop a rash or red discolouration of the skin. The skin also often becomes very itchy which will lead to the animal scratching, rubbing or shaking its body or head. Cats, on the other hand, often don’t scratch when they have itchy skin but will groom excessively, which will lead to subsequent hair loss. Cats with fleabite allergies can often also develop secondary crusty lesions all over the body.
Besides the redness and discomfort as an inflammatory response to allergies, teary eyes might also happen. What might be normal for one breed or one pet might be regarded as abnormal for another (like tear stains underneath the eyes of Pomeranians), hence it is very important to always pay close attention to your pets and get to know them well. If anything appears different or if you have any question it is best to consult your vet about it.
“One could identify the allergen and try and avoid exposure as best as possible. This is, however, not always true and possible with environmental allergies. If you know your pet suffers from allergies it is important to invest in good quality products to protect the skin’s barrier, including excellent tick and flea prevention, specific diets for animals with sensitive skin and sensitive skin shampoos,” Dr von Zeuner adds.
Treatment for allergies is done on a very individualistic basis and depends on the allergy and you pet. The body will remain sensitive to the allergen and one needs to either ensure avoidance, which is possible with certain food allergies and flea allergies. The immune reaction can also be counteracted or reduced with the use of medication.
In certain cases, the pets will require chronic medication to ensure that symptoms are managed. It is important to ensure all necessary precautions are in place to reduce the use or dose of these drugs, to minimise the chance of side-effects.
We often find that the primary cause for certain diseases are allergies. For example, chronic ear or anal gland infection can be a result of underlying allergies or hypersensitivity. The inflamed skin presents the ideal environment for bacterial or yeast overgrowth. This can also be the case in certain deep skin infections.
Some allergens or irritants can also potentially worsen conditions such as feline asthma or chronic bronchitis. Second-hand smoke could also be very detrimental to your pet’s health and lead to asthma-like symptoms,” she adds.
“The managemental of allergies amongst pets requires year-round care and there is often no ‘silver bullet’ or ‘blanket therapy’. But it can be managed to a large extent with the help of your veterinarian,” stresses Dr von Zeuner.
Can pets outgrow allergies?
If juvenile, patients might show signs of hypersensitivity and they can often outgrow it. Much like a child, as the immune system develops, it can become more tolerant of an allergen.
Adult pets are very unlikely to outgrow allergies, and certain seasonal allergies can even get worse over time. We often see older patients with permanent scarring, hair loss, thickening of the skin and or discolouration of the skin due to years of scratching and licking.
Can tick and flea prevention play a role in the occurrence or prevention of allergies?
Yes, one fleabite can offset an entire allergic reaction. Flea allergy dermatitis is one of the most commonly treated conditions in the veterinary practise. A lot of allergy-type reactions (like itchy skin) start with ectoparasites such as fleas and it is the most common allergy amongst dogs and cats. If your pet is even mildly allergic, flea and tick control must be applied very strictly throughout the year.
Is there food for dogs with sensitive/allergic reactions? How do I determine what food my dog is allergic to, if that is the case?
Food allergies are also very common. The most common food allergy is protein sensitivities, which require a strict food trial of at least 2 months and preferentially 3 months.
Currently, there are a variety of excellent diets available. Clients should consult a veterinarian about these dietary options and how to enforce them.
What about allergies to certain medication?
If you suspect your pet is showing an allergic reaction towards medication, it should be regarded as a medical emergency and your pet should be taken to the vet immediately. Pets can also be allergic to drugs and show similar symptoms than humans do, like with allergies to penicillin, etc.
Would you consider ‘natural’ treatments for allergies?
As a vet, I want to follow a treatment plan that causes the least amount of harm to the patient and, even though there are cases where once under control, allergies can be managed with natural remedies, most often pets do require medication or a treatment plan with follow-up visits.
Once your pet is diagnosed with allergies it is important to understand that there is no quick fix and one will need to work patiently towards a goal of adequate maintenance. Certain home remedies could also be very detrimental to your pet’s health, like essential oils that could burn your pet or cause worse adverse effects.
People on social media community groups often advise that pet owners keep Allergex ready in case of, for instance, an allergic reaction to a bee sting. But what is the maximum dosage one should give? I am generally wary of giving human medication to pets without direction from a veterinarian?
Fortunately, TAH Bellville is a 24-hour hospital and that means a vet will always be available. It is possible that your pet can go into anaphylactic shock after an insect sting and if an owner sees any sign of an acute allergic reaction, they should take their pet to the nearest veterinarian.
Antihistamine (like Allergex) can certainly reduce the effects and in certain cases be sufficient treatment, but it would be best for owners to phone the after-hours phone line at 021-91 91191 and discuss dosage options with the vet on call. Do not give your pet any human medicine without consulting your vet first.