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dogOne of the most common complaints I get from pet owners is that their dog or cat is itchy. Itchiness can be a sign of allergies. Allergies are extremely common in pets. In fact, the number one grossing veterinary drug in the world is allergy medication. Allergies in pets most often show up as skin issues.

It’s important to treat allergies in pets because severe allergies and itchiness can lead to poor quality of life. In fact, one recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found a link between skin allergies and behavior problems in dogs.

Here’s what you need to know about what causes pet allergies, how they’re diagnosed, how they’re treated, and what you can do at home to help ease itchiness.

How to Spot Itchiness and Potential Allergies in Pets

Excessive scratching is an obvious sign of itchiness and potential allergies. But here are a couple others to watch out for:

  • Excessive paw licking
  • Butt scooting
  • Ear infections
  • Missing patches of fur
  • Wounds on skin

What Causes Pet Allergies?

Environmental allergies. About 90 percent of pet allergies are caused by allergens in the pet’s environment. Common allergy triggers include pollen, dust, and mold.

Food allergies. Food allergies in pets are less common. They make up about 10 percent of all pet allergies. When food allergies do occur, they’re typically caused by some sort of protein in the diet such as beef, chicken, fish or egg. Despite the popularity of grain-free diets, food allergies in pets are very rarely caused by grains.

How Are Allergies in Pets Diagnosed?

Pet allergies often are what we call a “diagnosis of exclusion.” This means an allergy diagnosis is reached by ruling out other problems that could be causing itching and other skin symptoms.

Your pet will be checked first for other common causes of itching. These include fleas, skin mites, and yeast or bacterial infections.

Certain other health issues, including hormonal disorders such as Cushing’s disease or hypothyroidism, and rarely certain types of skin cancer, also may lead to itching and skin problems. We’ll rule these more serious conditions out too, before settling on an allergy diagnosis.

If you want to identify specific allergens, you’ll need to go to a veterinary dermatologist for testing. (Dermatologists are the allergy specialists of the veterinary world.) Allergy testing in pets is similar to allergy testing in humans. The dermatologist will perform a skin scratch test that can check for allergic reactions to dozens of common allergens at once.

Some vets will offer allergy testing using a blood test, saliva test, or hair test. These allergy tests are controversial. Many of these tests, though easier to administer, are not as accurate as skin testing.

How Are Pet Food Allergies Treated?

If a food allergy is suspected, we’ll start your pet on a hypoallergenic diet. These are specially formulated prescription pet foods in which the proteins have been hydrolyzed. It’s a special process that breaks down the proteins on a molecular level, making them too small for the pet’s body to recognize as allergens.

How Are Pet Environmental Allergies Treated?

Environmental allergens typically are treated with medicine. Here are a few medicines we use to treat allergies in pets:

Over-the-counter antihistamines
As a first step, many owners will try an over-the-counter antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or cetirizine (Zyrtec). Antihistamines can sometimes help with itching, but may not be very effective in pets. An estimated 20 percent of dogs with allergies will see improvement with antihistamines.

Prescription allergy medicines
There are two pet-specific prescription drugs that are commonly used to treat environmental allergies. One drug, Apoquel (Oclacitinib), is a tablet given daily. The other, Cytopoint, is an injection given monthly. They are both very effective at stopping itchiness caused by allergies and work in approximately 80-90 percent of dogs.

Both Apoquel and Cytopoint are labeled for use in dogs only. Apoquel sometimes can be prescribed to cats, though its efficacy in cats is not as good as in dogs.

Steroids, such as prednisone, are used for severe inflammation and itching. Steroids should only be given for a short period of time, because they have a lot of side effects that can cause long-term problems.

Other Allergy Treatments
Allergy shots that desensitize your pet to target allergens are another great long-term treatment option–and the only one that can really cure your pet of an allergy (both food and environmental). Allergy shots are formulated by veterinary dermatologists based on the results of a scratch test.

Home Pet Allergy Remedies
There are a few things you can do at home to help ease pet allergies.

Bathe your pet. Baths can really help with itching. They remove allergens, such as pollen, that may have landed in your pet’s fur. I recommend weekly baths for dogs and cats with skin allergies. Make sure to use a pet-safe shampoo. Human shampoos can leave your pet’s skin dry and flaky–the last thing you want when your pet already is itchy.
Fish oil. Fish oil has some anti-inflammatory properties and may provide skin benefits. You can try adding a fish oil supplement to your pet’s food to see if it helps with itching.

Hang In There!

Treating allergies in pets can be frustrating at times, but don’t get discouraged if you’ve tried something in the past that hasn’t worked.

There’s no one best approach that works for every pet. Treating allergies in dogs and cats often requires a bit of trial and error.

With proper treatment, dogs and cats can live quite comfortably with allergies.