Have you ever wondered why your dog likes to lick between their toes, or why they get so many ear infections? Or have you been puzzled by your cat’s need to groom themselves until they are nearly bald, or why they keep developing little scabs over their neck and back?
Some of these things might be normal for some pets, but all of them are potentially signs of a skin allergy. These kinds of allergies are very common in pets, but sadly can be very difficult to treat. It is important to note that allergies can start at anytime in a pets lifetime even if no noticeable changes have been made such as a change of diet. We’ll take a quick look at exactly what skin allergies are, and why they can be tricky to diagnose and treat.
What are allergies?
Cats and dogs develop allergies when their immune systems start to react to something in an inappropriate way. This reaction leads to inflammation, which causes the symptoms of allergies.
These reactions can happen:
- In the skin, which causes itchiness
- In the intestines, which causes vomiting or diarrhoea
- In the lungs, which causes coughing and wheezing
Skin allergies are the most common of these, so we’ll focus on them for this blog.
Some dogs and cats are more prone to developing allergies than others. This is down to their genes, rather than anything that we as owners might have done. A tendency to develop allergies is called atopy, and certain dog and cat breeds have higher rates of atopy than others.
Common examples of things that can trigger allergies in pets include:
- Food proteins
Things that trigger allergies are called allergens.
Allergies are a life-long condition in both dogs and cats, but are usually treatable with a combination of medication, special diets, and reducing the pet’s contact with allergens.
What are the symptoms of skin allergies in pets?
The symptoms of skin allergies are slightly different in dogs and cats.
Symptoms of allergies in dogs include:
- Licking or chewing at their fur, especially, between their toes, in the armpits and groin and around their bottoms
- Itchy ears - sometimes with repeated ear infections
- Pink or red skin - usually visible most easily in the groin, or on the inside of the ear flap.
- Redness, smelliness, or discharge in skin folds for those breeds that have wrinkled skin (like Bulldogs or Shar Peis)
- A bumpy, itchy chin that dogs repeatedly rub along the floor or on furniture
- Hives (raised bumps) across the skin.
The symptoms in cats tend to be more subtle, but include:
- Over-grooming – often done in private, so you just see bald spots appearing over your cat’s body
- Lots of small scabs over the head, neck, and/or back – this is called “Miliary dermatitis”
- Red, inflamed skin – but this is not always present
- Raised red areas, often over the legs. These are called “eosinophilic granulomas”.
- Itchy ears, sometimes with repeated ear infections.
What might my pet be allergic to?
There are many different allergens that dogs and cats can be allergic to. However, some of these are more common than others.
Pollens are a very common allergen for pets. Pets who are just allergic to pollens tend to start becoming itchy in the spring or summer. Tree pollens are the first to appear, and then grass pollens, with flower pollens coming later. Their symptoms may then go away over the winter if they are only allergic to pollen, but if they have other allergies then they may just improve slightly.
Dust mites are another common allergy. If your pet is allergic to dust mites, this doesn’t mean your house is dirty – dust mites are found in every home! Pets who are allergic to dust mites tend to be itchy all year round but may get worse in the autumn or winter when the central heating is turned on, as this will boost the levels of dust mites around the house.
Fleas are a pain for any dog or cat, but some of them are particularly sensitive and can develop an allergic reaction to their bites. Flea levels are highest in the spring and summer but can be a problem at any time of year if pets are not on regular flea treatment.
Food proteins can trigger both intestinal and skin allergies in pets. It is usually the meat protein - chicken, beef, fish, or so on - that pets react to in their food. Grain proteins like wheat, barley or rice can also cause a problem but this is less common, meaning most pets do not improve on “grain-free” diets.
There are also many other, less common allergens that can cause trouble for some pets.
How do we diagnose and treat skin allergies?
Skin allergies can be tricky to diagnose in pets, as many other conditions can have similar symptoms to allergies.
If your pet is showing any of the symptoms that we discussed earlier, then you should arrange to see us. We will examine your pet and may need to run some tests to work out if allergies are causing your pet’s symptoms, or if there is something else going on.
In the event that your pet is diagnosed with skin allergies, the good news is that there is a huge range of different treatment options available. We can help you to navigate these and find the right solution for you and your pet.
Skin allergies are common in both cats and dogs. The symptoms can be very varied and overlap with a lot of other common conditions, so it is important to have them checked out and get a proper diagnosis. Thankfully, with the right treatment, dogs and cats with skin allergies can live long, happy lives.