Could my dog or cat have allergies as a cause of itching and/or recurrent infections?

Allergies are the most common cause of itching in Minnesota, especially if your pet is on a good flea and tick preventive.  In warmer areas of the United States, or if your pet goes outdoors without a flea and tick preventive, fleas are a more common cause for itching.   A consultation with a veterinarian is warranted to rule out parasites or other skin diseases prior to making the diagnosis of allergies. 

Symptoms of allergies in dogs and cats

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Stained feet and nails likely indicate allergy

Dogs

The main symptoms of allergies in dogs are itching and recurrent infections.   Dogs relieve itch by licking, chewing, scooting, rubbing, or scratching.  Dogs rarely perform these behaviors out of boredom or anxiety, although being bored or anxious makes things worse.  Infections are typically yeast and/or bacterial infections of the skin and ears.  The ears may be the only affected area in a younger pet, progressing to the full body usually before age 6 years.  Another area typically affected is the feet.  If you look between the toes you may notice the skin there is red or your dog chews the feet or licks the legs.  Then the armpits, abdomen, chest, under the neck, and anal area are often affected- the skin may be red, greasy, smelly or itchy.  With long term issues, the skin becomes darker and thicker.  The hair may be missing or shorter due to infections and chewing.  Some terriers have their worst symptoms down their backs.  Some dogs lick huge sores on their lower legs.  Some dogs have red, runny eyes and may sneeze due to allergies.

Cats

The main symptom of allergies in cats is itching.  Cats will scratch, bite their skin, pull out hair, and overgroom to help relieve itch.  Cats rarely perform these behaviors out of boredom or anxiety, although being bored or anxious makes things worse.  Cats with allergies get skin and ear infections much less often than dogs do, but they certainly occur.  Cats most often make bald patches on themselves, usually the lower abdomen is the worst area, and with progression, raw areas are created with the cat’s raspy tongue.  Cats often will scratch at the head with the hind leg and create scabs around the eyes and ears.  Cats can manifest allergies with asthma too, but it is fairly rare to have asthma and skin symptoms at the same time.

What type of allergy could my dog or cat have?

There are two basic types of allergies that cause skin itching and recurrent infections once parasites are ruled out- food allergy and environmental allergy.  Pets can have both of these allergy types at the same time.  Allergies in dogs typically start with symptoms between the ages of 1-6 years.  Symptoms can wax and wane, but typically worsen up to the age of 6 and level off.  As pets with allergies get older, they tend to get more frequent infections along with itchiness.

Food allergies

If your pet had allergy symptoms start at younger than 1 year of age, the symptoms are year round, or there are any gastrointestinal signs like vomiting, loose stools, or having more than 2 bowel movements per day, food allergies are more likely.  Most pets with allergies don’t have food allergies, only about 5-10% of dogs and perhaps 30% of cats do.  There is no diagnostic test for a food allergy other than an elimination diet trial.  If a pet responds to a food trial, then we can go about the tedious task of determining exactly what they are allergic to, or we can simply find a diet they do well on and stick with it.

Environmental allergies

Environmental allergies are reactions to pollens, dusts, and molds.  Environmental allergies may be seasonal with outdoor allergies, or year round with indoor allergies.  Most pets have a combination of indoor and outdoor allergies.  To determine what allergens in the environment are causing your pet to have symptoms, we can perform allergy testing.  

Treatments for allergies in dogs and cats

If there is a food allergy, the offending foods must be avoided.  To control environmental allergies, sometimes short courses of medications are needed.  If allergic symptoms recur quickly when treatments are stopped, long term treatments are needed.  Some pets need antibiotics and antifungals in addition to medications that control the inflammation in the skin.  When the inflammation is controlled, the itch resolves.  

Unfortunately, there is still no cure for allergies.  The closest treatment we have to a cure is to do allergy testing and allergy shots.  Allergy shots do not cause any degree of immune suppression, unlike most other treatments for allergies.  Allergy shots may take a while to work and so other medications are needed while waiting for the allergy shots to have maximal effect.  Of course, there are adjunctive treatments for allergies, like antihistamines (Benadryl), shampoos, topical steroids or moisturizers, and omega-3 fatty acids.  If a pet has mild allergies, these other treatments may be sufficient.

What combination of therapies is best for your pet depends on your individual pet, their personality, type and locations of infections, seasonality, skin and hair type, and of course what they respond best to.  It often takes several visits with a dermatologist to find the perfect combination of treatments, especially with severe cases, but our goal is that your pet ultimately has less flare ups, infections, and vet visits.  Our whole team is there to help you and your pet, to make sure your pet gets relief and you have peace of mind.

What else could be causing my pet’s itching and infections?

There are many other causes of itching, including parasites.  For example, if ear margins are affected, and the pet is minimally or not responding to glucocorticoid (steroid) and antibiotic treatments, then your pet has a much higher likelihood of having sarcoptic mites.  If the area of the back over your pet’s back legs to the tail is affected, then your pet has a higher chance of having fleas or a mite called Cheyletiella, both of which can be caught from the environment, rabbits, cats, or dogs.  Skin infections with yeast and/or bacteria can be very itchy.  The underlying reason why your pet got an infection in the first place should be investigated- if your pet is young and has recurrent infections, the most likely cause is allergies.  There are other diseases we would need to rule out if an older dog or cat suddenly develops itching or infections.  Sometimes dogs and cats focus on a particular area due to pain- like licking an arthritic paw, or licking the lower abdomen with bladder stones.  A thorough history, physical exam, diagnostics, and response to treatment help to confirm a diagnosis.