If your pet can’t stop itching, they may have an allergy. Allergies, caused by fleas, environmental substances, and food, are common in pets, and often cause itchy, inflamed skin. Our team at Terra Linda Veterinary Hospital wants to help by providing information about pet allergies so you know what to expect if your pet is affected, and how you can alleviate their discomfort.

Does my pet have a flea allergy?

You may think the answer to this question is a profound “No,” but you may be surprised—flea allergies are the most common skin disease seen in pets. A pet who is allergic to fleas is reacting to the flea’s saliva, and a single flea bite can cause a significant itchy response. In addition, your pet will respond by obsessively scratching, licking, chewing, and rubbing, which frequently removes all fleas from their coat and can make the parasites difficult to detect. However, pets with a flea allergy typically have hair loss and skin lesions on their lower back, around their tail, and on their thighs and abdomen. If your itchy pet is showing flea allergy signs, you can take these steps to address the issue:

  • Medications — Medications can decrease the inflammation and relieve your pet’s discomfort, but the only way to effectively address the problem is to remove all fleas from your pet and their environment.
  • Your pet — Bathe your pet in an appropriate shampoo to kill the fleas, and then use a flea comb to remove the parasites from their skin and coat.
  • Your pet’s environment — Removing fleas from your pet’s environment can be tricky, because fleas are pervasive, and all life stages must be treated to prevent the parasites from returning. You should thoroughly wash or discard your pet’s bedding, and vacuum all carpet and upholstery. You should also treat areas inside and outside your home that your pet frequents using an appropriate insecticide. You may have to repeat this step to eliminate all fleas.
  • Flea prevention — Your pet should remain on a flea prevention plan year-round to prevent recurrence.

Does my pet have an environmental allergy?

Similar to humans, pets can be allergic to substances such as pollen, dust mites, mold, weeds, and pet dander. However, their response is itchy skin, as opposed to sneezing, coughing, and watery eyes. The condition in pets is called atopy, and the areas most commonly affected include ears, feet, abdomen, muzzle, armpits, groin, around the tail, and around the eyes. Some affected pets suffer from chronic ear infections, which can be the first indication that they have atopy. Secondary skin infections are also common, especially in pets with multiple skin folds.

Any pet can develop an environmental allergy, but some breeds, including shih tzus, golden retrievers, poodles, cocker spaniels, and domestic shorthaired cats, are at a higher risk. Atopy is typically quickly responsive to steroid treatment, and a pet suspected with atopy will be given a trial course. If their signs improve, atopy may be indicated, and allergy testing can be performed to determine the environmental allergens triggering their response. Treatment typically involves multiple strategies, including:

  • Avoiding the allergen — Completely avoiding the allergen is not always possible, but when feasible, the allergen should be removed from your pet’s environment.
  • Removing the allergen — Bathing your pet can help remove allergens from their coat and can help soothe inflamed skin. Between baths, you can wipe your pet’s coat, abdomen, and limbs with a wet cloth to remove allergens after being outside.
  • Cleaning your home — If your pet is allergic to dust mites, dusting and vacuuming frequently can help reduce their exposure.
  • Steroids — Steroids are frequently used to calm severe atopic episodes, but these medications can cause side effects if used in high doses or for extended periods.
  • Anti-itch medications — Several anti-itch medications on the market can reduce your pet’s distress.
  • Allergen immunotherapy — The information from allergy testing can be used to produce allergen immunotherapy, which involves administering drops in your pet’s mouth, or injections under their skin given at increasingly higher allergen doses to desensitize them. Most pets’ signs improve using this therapy, but may take up to 12 months to be effective.

Does my pet have a food allergy?

Food allergies are the least common allergies seen in pets, but a pet who reacts to their food is typically hypersensitive to the protein source. Common food allergens include chicken, beef, eggs, and dairy, and carbohydrates, such as wheat and soy, can also be culprits. Food allergic pets are commonly affected in the same areas as atopic pets, but they typically do not respond well to steroid treatment. The only definitive way to diagnose a food allergy is to remove the offending ingredient from your pet’s food by placing them on a food elimination diet. This lengthy process entails:

  • Providing a diet history for your pet — You will need to provide every ingredient your pet has previously eaten, since the trial diet must contain only ingredients your pet has not ingested.
  • Choosing a trial diet — The trial diet can be a novel diet, such as kangaroo and peas or buffalo and sweet potatoes, or a hydrolyzed diet that contains a protein source in such small sizes that the body doesn’t recognize the substance.
  • Sticking to the trial diet — You must vigilantly keep your pet on the trial diet for at least eight weeks, during which time they must not eat any table scraps, unauthorized treats, or flavored medications, or they must restart the trial. 
  • Verifying the food allergy — If your pet’s signs improve while on the trial diet, they will go back to their original diet to ensure their food was the problem.
  • Determining the culprit — Once a food allergy has been definitively diagnosed, and your pet is comfortably back on the hypoallergenic diet, they can be challenged with ingredients from their original diet to determine the specific culprit.

Allergies can be frustrating to diagnose and treat, but our team at Terra Linda Veterinary Hospital is here to help. If you have an itchy, irritated pet, contact us, so we can relieve their discomfort.