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Dog Allergies, Cat Allergies - what should I know?

Allergies can manifest all year round. Springtime seems to bring more than the usual share so veterinarian Dr. Christopher Gaylord of North Slope Veterinary chatted with Brooklyn Bark about itching, swelling, watery eyes and the Rite of Spring.

Brooklyn Bark: Do many dogs and cats have allergies? Dr. Chris: Yes, it is one of the most common problems seen by veterinarians. Unlike humans, dogs and cats with allergies tend to have skin problems and particularly pruritis (itchiness). Mild allergies may present as occasional itchiness, face rubbing, and discharge from the eyes. Animals with more severe allergies can sometimes be so itchy that they cannot get comfortable or sleep through the night. They often scratch their skin so hard that they damage the skin and develop bacterial infections. Dogs with allergies are often more prone to ear infections and anal gland problems as well.

BBark: I saw my dog scratching today, does she have allergies? Dr. Chris: Remember that scratching various body parts is a favorite past time of most animals. If you feel that your dog is excessively itchy or that there is a notable increase in scratching, it is probably a good idea to have them examined. Flea prevention medication is important too as fleas are another common cause of itchiness in dogs. Furthermore, dogs can be allergic to flea bites. This is known as flea allergy dermatitis and often results in severe pruritis and discomfort.

BBark: How do I know what my dog is allergic to? Dr. Chris: The difficulty in answering this question is what can often make treating allergies so frustrating for both owners and veterinarians (not to mention our pets). Animals can be allergic to basically anything. The two broad categories of allergic reactions are: food allergies and “atopy” (an abnormal reaction to an otherwise harmless environmental substance).

Atopy is often seasonal in nature and 70% of dogs are first diagnosed with atopy when they are between one and three years of age. While blood tests are available to check for common environmental allergies (dust mites, tree and grass pollen, etc.) there is no reliable test for food allergies in dogs. There are certain patterns of reactions or itchiness that your veterinarian may be able to use to differentiatebetween the two, however. If you notice that your dog has become itchier, it is important to take note of anything that has changed in your dog’s environment. Additions to their diet, new treats, or changes in season are often elements that can cause a flare-up. The more information you can provide to your vet, the easier it will be for them to help. BBark: Is there a cure for allergies? Dr. Chris: Unfortunately, there is no cure for allergies. Treatment of allergies involves a combination of short-term treatments to alleviate discomfort and help the skin heal and long term treatments to prevent flare-ups and recurrence. Your vet may prescribe antihistamine or steroids to reduce itchiness and make your dog more comfortable, and antibiotics to treat any secondary infections.

Longer term treatments include modifying the environment to decrease your pets’ exposure to allergens, adjusting bathing habits and using medicated shampoos and/or nutritional supplements. In cases where a cause for the allergic reaction can be determined (usually through a blood test), a desensitization protocol may be implemented. This is similar to “allergy shots” used in people, in which your pet is exposed initially to a small amount of allergen, either through an injection or oral preparation, and then to increasingly larger doses in an effort to desensitize them to the allergen.

If your veterinarian suspects a food allergy, he or she may recommend a food trial.

BBark: What is a food trial? Dr. Chris: If your vet suspects that your dog has food allergies they may recommend a food trial in which your pet is placed on a prescription food often made with an unusual meat as the protein source such as duck, rabbit, or kangaroo. This is because the protein (chicken, lamb, beef, fish) is the most likely component in the food that dogs are allergic to.

By placing them on a novel protein diet and monitoring their response, it may be possible to determine if food allergies are causing or contributing to your pet’s itchiness. Food trials are an important tool in treating allergies but they are easier said than done. It often takes at least 6 weeks to determine if a food trial is effective.Furthermore pets undergoing a food trial cannot be exposed to any other food sources, which means no other treats or table scraps for the duration of the food trial.

Unfortunately, a majority of dogs with a food sensitivity suffer from atopy as well, so even if the food trial is successful, it does not guarantee that their allergy symptoms will completely resolve.

BBark: What can I do at home if I think my pet has allergies? Dr. Chris: The most important thing that you can do is take careful note to any changes in your pet’s routine andconsider if he has been exposed to anything new. Make sure that your pet is up to date on flea preventative medication. Keep a close eye on where on their body your pet is itching so you can discuss with your vet. Most animals can be given Benadryl, a common anthihistamine, but you should always consult with your veterinarian before giving any medication and to ensure proper dosage.

BBark: May we add that an owner who suspects allergies should mention this to their dog walker / pet sitter and ask how their pet behaves during the time they are together in order to get a more full picture.

Dr. Chris Yes, it would be very helpful to get feedback from the people who care for your pets. They may be able to provide good insight.

Christopher Gaylord, DVM, is the practice owner of North Slope Veterinary, 207 6th Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11217. A graduate of Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Gaylord practiced in Manhattan and Jersey City before opening his practice in Park Slope. He can be reached at To make an appointment with Dr. Gaylord, call 718-789-7170, M-F: 9am-7pm or Sat: 9am-3pm. House calls available on request.

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