Your pet scratches, chews and licks himself all the time? Canine and feline itching is often a symptom of an allergy. But an allergy to what? That is the question… If you notice signs of intense itching, better consult your veterinarian, and read below.
There are four major causes of possible allergies in dogs and cats. Indeed, there are allergies to flea bites, atopic dermatitis (including seasonal allergies), food allergies, and contact allergy (skin reaction following contact, with a chemical product, for example). All these causes lead to several symptoms, one of which is common to them; i.e. pruritus.
In dogs, itching results in scratching, licking and excessive biting, most often directed at the ears, face, paws, stomach and perineum. In cats, excessive grooming is mainly noticed on the face, belly and groin. Unfortunately, this excessive scratching will, in most cases, lead to self-inflicted traumatic skin damage. Thus, we can observe areas of hair loss, redness, scabs, red and oozing raised patches, ulcers, etc.
When the animal creates lesions due to excessive scratching, the skin becomes more fragile and therefore more susceptible to secondary bacterial and fungal infections. It is possible that your veterinarian administers antibiotics or antifungals to your animal to cure these infections before attacking the cause of the allergies.
Only a veterinarian is able to make an accurate diagnosis about excessive itching.
There are three types of allergies:
- Food allergies: this allergy occurs when the animal’s immune system reacts to a specific ingredient. Your pet may develop a food allergy overnight, no matter if you’ve given him the same food for a long time. You can see that the animal is scratching excessively, especially around the ears and legs.
- Dermatitis: it only takes one flea bite to trigger allergy dermatitis (FAD). Your pet does not need to be infested with fleas to suffer from extreme itching in the back, legs, belly, and tail. To make a diagnosis, the veterinarian checks for fleas or flea feces, redness, sores or skin infections.
- Atopy: Just like humans, your pet may be allergic to pollen, dust mites, dust and mould. Atopy may be seasonal or annual; it causes itching in the head, stomach, elbows and on the legs.
The ultimate test to diagnose atopic dermatitis is a skin allergy test or allergy intradermal test (TAID); this test being carried out by a veterinarian who specializes in dermatology. A small patch of hair is shaved from your pet's side and a very small amount of an allergen-containing solution is injected. In total, about 50 allergens are injected. These allergens are selected based on their presence in the geographic region where you live. Afterwards, each injection site is analyzed 15 to 30 minutes later to determine which allergen(s) reacted on your animal. If the reaction is positive, then swelling will be present at the injection site.
The skin allergy test is generally carried out at least around 2 ½-3 years of age in order to allow the animal to develop all of its allergies. Indeed, an animal allergic to only a few allergens at around 1 year old may become allergic to a range of others a few years later. This saves us from repeating the test, which can be quite expensive! It is also best to perform this test in the fall or winter so that environmental allergens such as pollen do not interfere with the test.
Itching caused by allergy can be treated in several ways:
- pest control;
- specialized shampoo;
However, be aware that nutrition can play a major role in controlling allergies. Some dog food formulas specifically designed to protect healthy skin may be effective against itching. Acting as a skin barrier, these therapeutic nutrient formulas prevent the penetration of allergens in the dog's body and promotes optimum hydration, which considerably reduces itching.
The only treatment that will allow your animal to recover from its allergies is hyposensitization or immunotherapy. On the other hand, to have access to this treatment, it is necessary to perform the skin allergy test beforehand. Subsequently, once the allergens have been isolated, a solution is made and then periodically injected into your pet. Generally, this treatment is effective in 75% of animals and it takes a period of 3 to 12 months before the itching subsides. The injections should be continued for life, but once the itching is well controlled, the intervals between injections may increase.
As previously mentioned, the skin allergy test is relatively expensive. Thus, it is sometimes possible to control allergies with alternative solutions before having the famous skin test performed. In animals whose signs of allergies are seasonal and mild, a symptomatic treatment can be attempted before moving onto the allergy test, with the agreement of the owner. Indeed, some medications such as cortisone, essential fatty acids and antihistamines are effective in controlling symptoms, but it is important to mention that these do not cure allergies! Some of these drugs, especially cortisone, can lead to side effects if administered over a long period. It is therefore very important to weigh the pros and cons before choosing this option.
You can help your veterinarian to determine the causes of your pet’s itching by noting your observations:
- Is the itching regular or occasional? When does it occur?
- Which dog food do you use? Do you give him treats?
- Have you moved recently?
- Do you have new furniture?
- Have you used new household cleaning products?
- Do you have a new pet?