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Allergies more than a nuisance for pets
JACKSON -- Sneezing, itchy skin and swollen, watery eyes are hallmarks of spring and summer for some humans. But allergies can affect pets, too.
Dr. Juli Gunter, board-certified veterinary dermatology specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said sensitivities to fleas and environmental elements, such as grass, tree and weed pollens and house dust mites, are the most common allergies in dogs and cats.
“In our part of the country, flea and environmental allergies, also called atopy or atopic dermatitis, may occur throughout the year but worsen in the warmer months,” she said.
Food allergies are less common and are typically caused by a protein in the food. They are non-seasonal and can be treated by changing the pet’s diet, Gunter said.
Basic symptoms of all allergic reactions include itchy skin, hair loss, and ear and skin infections.
Treatment is important for the pet’s quality of life and long-term health, said Dr. Warren Martin, a veterinarian at Animal Care Clinic in Wiggins.
Most allergies are treated by avoiding or reducing exposure to the triggers. An integrated flea control program, which includes control of fleas on the pet and in its environment, reduces the animal’s reaction in most cases. Responses to environmental allergens, which also can include ornamental landscape plants and molds, can be reduced by giving regular baths and using high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters in the home. Medications, such as antihistamines and steroids, also can be used to help ease symptoms, Martin said.
Most pets get relief with basic treatment, but proper and timely diagnosis is important.
“When we catch allergies at the onset, it is usually easier and less costly to control the symptoms,” Martin said. “Most of the time, those treatments are successful.”
However, dogs and cats that do not respond to basic treatments can undergo allergy therapy, which is a series of allergen introductions by injections under the skin or by mouth, both Martin and Gunter said.
Gunter explained the treatment. The pet first undergoes a skin test to determine what substance or substances cause its allergic reaction. If the veterinarian is unable to perform a skin test, a blood allergy test may be used to find the offending allergens. Then the allergen is introduced to the pet in gradually increased doses, which helps lessen the animal’s reaction over time.
“We call this therapy allergen-specific immunotherapy, and it is the only means to alter the long-term course of disease for atopy,” Gunter said. “While we do not have evidence that allergies can be prevented by using allergy therapy, this type of therapy is thought to shift the immune system to a less reactive state and possibly prevent further symptoms.”
Animals that improve with allergen-specific immunotherapy typically need it for the rest of their lives, Gunter said.
“Dogs and cats with atopic dermatitis are never cured, but we try to find the best management for each individual to provide a better quality of life,” she said.
Pet owners who suspect their dog or cat has allergies should make an appointment with their veterinarian, who can properly diagnose and monitor allergies, Gunter said.
“If the veterinarian feels the symptoms are worsening with time or are not responding to appropriate medications, they can refer the animal to a specialist for skin testing so that allergen-specific immunotherapy can be incorporated into the management of the pet’s skin allergies,” Gunter said.
Animals do not often have life-threatening symptoms, but untreated atopy can lead to misery for the pet and secondary infections that can cause a dangerous blood infection that can make a pet systemically ill, Gunter said.
“Most dogs with atopy tend to get worse as they get older, and the quicker treatment is initiated, especially allergy therapy, the better chance for success,” she said. “Dogs, and less commonly cats, that have chronic ear infections often have an underlying food allergy or atopy. If left untreated, some ear disease can end with a need for surgical removal of the ear. We have a better chance to prevent the need for surgery if we can detect the true cause early and start treatment.”
Contact: Karen Templeton, 662-325-1100