If your pet’s skin is itchy and inflamed, they may be suffering from allergies. Environmental substances, as well as other elements, can trigger allergies in pets. Our Veterinary Medical Center of Indian River County team knows that allergies can frustrate people and pets, so we offer information about common pet allergies and how these conditions are managed.

Flea allergy dermatitis in pets

Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is the leading cause of allergies in dogs and also is common in cats. FAD occurs when a pet’s immune system overreacts to flea saliva. When a flea takes a blood meal from your pet, the parasite injects a small amount of saliva, and sensitive dogs and cats have an allergic response to the antigens in the saliva. 

A single flea bite is all that is needed to trigger a response. Often, the guilty flea is groomed away by the pet, and the pet owner may not find a flea on their pet when the itchiness starts. However, fleas typically leave evidence behind, in the form of flea dirt (i.e., flea feces), and these small black specks in your pet’s fur or bedding indicate that FAD is the likely cause of their skin condition. In addition to excessive itchiness, affected pets usually have hair loss on their lower back and rear limbs and red skin lesions on their abdomen and inner thighs. 

The most important aspect of FAD treatment is removing all fleas from your pet and their environment. Year-round flea prevention is critical for your pet and all pets they encounter. In addition, eradicating fleas from your pet’s environment includes:

  • Using a powerful vacuum and a steam cleaner on floors, upholstery, and mattresses
  • Washing all bedding in hot water and detergent and drying at the highest heat setting
  • Repeating these steps every week for at least a month to ensure the infestation is clear

Atopy in pets

Atopy refers to allergic responses to environmental substances, such as tree and plant pollens, dust particles, and mold. Affected pets have a defective skin barrier that allows the allergens to enter and trigger the immune system. Characteristics of atopic pets include:

  • Age — Onset in dogs is typically between 1 and 3 years of age. Age isn’t a helpful determining factor in cats.
  • Lifestyle — Many affected pets live indoors.
  • Chronic infections — Chronic or recurring skin and ear infections are common in atopic pets.
  • Itchy feet — Atopic pets often have itchy feet, resulting in excessive foot licking and chewing.

Diagnosing atopy involves ruling out other conditions that could trigger your pet’s allergic response. If atopy is suspected, allergy testing can be performed to determine the causative allergens and create allergen specific immunotherapy (i.e., allergy shots).

Management requires a multi-modal approach involving:

  • Bathing — Bathing your pet can remove allergens from their coat and help calm irritated skin.
  • Anti-itch medications — Several anti-itch medications, including a month-long injectable therapy, can help alleviate your pet’s discomfort. Our team will determine the best product for your furry pal.
  • Flea control — Strict flea control is necessary to manage atopy.
  • Steroids — In many cases, steroids are needed, especially in the acute phase, to help calm itching and inflammation.
  • Antimicrobials — Antimicrobials may be necessary to address secondary skin and ear infections.
  • Supplements — Omega-3 fatty acid supplements may be recommended to help promote your pet’s skin health.
  • Allergy shots — Allergen specific immunotherapy (i.e., allergy shots) is the gold standard for treating atopic pets. This therapy helps desensitize the pet to the causative allergens.

Food allergies in pets

Pets can also have an allergic reaction to ingredients in their food, most commonly proteins such as chicken, beef, dairy, and eggs. A food allergy develops slowly, and most affected pets have been eating the diet for several months or years before they show allergy signs. Any part of your pet’s body can be affected, but common areas include:

  • Dogs — The itchiness and skin lesions may be limited to the face, ears, limbs, feet, inner thighs, and under the tail.
  • Cats — The itchiness and skin lesions may be limited to the head, neck, and ears.

In addition to skin signs, some pets also have gastrointestinal (GI) signs, such as vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence, and abdominal pain.

A food elimination trial is the only way to definitively diagnose a food allergy. This involves feeding a special diet for about 8 to 12 weeks to see if the pet’s signs improve. During this time, the pet should receive no other food or treats, including table scraps and medicated chews. If the signs resolve, you can perform a challenge test to determine what ingredient caused your pet’s reaction. The best treatment is to avoid the triggering food, but allergies to new ingredients can arise.

If your pet keeps scratching, contact our Veterinary Medicine Center of Indian River County team, so we can diagnose the problem and alleviate their itchiness as soon as possible.