How to combat the scourge of pet allergies

Scratching can be an indicator of allergies in pets. Scratching can be an indicator of allergies in pets.

Many of us know what it’s like to deal with a runny nose, watery eyes and constant sneezing during allergy season, but what about our pets?

Allergies also can plague animal family members and send pet owners rushing to the vet’s office. In 2015, skin allergies were the No. 1 condition that Nationwide pet insurance policy holders cited in their claims for dogs. The company tallied more than 80,000 individual claims for skin allergies at an average cost of $210 per dog. Skin allergies ranked ninth in number of claims for cat medical conditions.

Seasonal allergies are common here in the South and afflict pets right along with people. Charleston ranked 28 in the Asthma and Allergy Foundation “Spring Allergy Capitals 2016” listing, faring worse than average in the ranking’s pollen score.

“You have sneezing people in the spring and fall as well as itchy pets,” said Dr. Thomas Hentges of Animal Medical West in West Ashley.

Recent transplants to the Lowcountry may soon notice the impact of allergies on their pets. Dr. Paul D. Patrick of Patrick Veterinary in downtown Charleston said allergies in dogs and cats are more common in the South versus in the North or out West.

“Animals definitely have more issues here because of the warmth and humidity,” he said. “It is manifested in their skin. Not like us where we show it more in our sinuses or as a headache and/or watery eyes.”

Hentges uses the alliterative mnemonic “feet, face, fanny and friction” to teach pet owners how to spot the signs of allergies in their pets.

“That is where cats and dogs show allergy symptoms the most commonly,” he said.

Although cats do not tend to suffer as much as dogs from allergies, Dr. Randall Thomas with Southeast Veterinary Dermatology in Mount Pleasant said felines tend to respond well to many of the same treatments that dogs do.

“For cats, the most common symptoms are itching and scratching as well,” he said. “Cats often manifest itchiness by over-grooming themselves and barbering off the hair with their rough tongue.”

The most common allergy trigger to beset Lowcountry pets is flea bites. According to petMD.com, flea bite hypersensitivity and flea allergic dermatitis is the most common skin problem for pets.

Thomas said dogs typically have a very distinct distribution of flea bites, primarily on the last third of the body, including the tail and backs of the thighs, causing itching, chewing and licking. Bites are more generalized in cats, the vet said.

“In most of the patients I see, the owner never sees a flea on the pet. But, just a very few ... flea bites every couple of weeks is enough to keep the pet itching constantly,” Thomas said.

He recommends using a high quality flea treatment from a vet to nip this problem.

The second most common allergy in pets is pollens and dust mites, otherwise known as environmental allergies. Both dogs and cats are affected by environmental allergies, which are some of the most unavoidable allergies suffered by pets.

Thomas said allergy immunotherapy administered through shots can help desensitize an animal to particular allergies.

“For owners that do not want to give their pet shots, we offer oral immunotherapy,” Thomas said. “The success rate seems to be about the same as the injections.”

Many dogs also have an allergy to grass. Cleaning off a dog’s feet when he or she comes inside can help alleviate the symptoms of this allergy.

Hentges, the West Ashley vet, recommends wiping dogs feet with over-the-counter Selsun Blue shampoo if you notice your dog licking and chewing their paws after coming in from the outside. Thomas recommends specialty wipes or a solution of half vinegar, half water.

“This helps wipe away the allergens,” Thomas said. “It also helps lower the pH of the skin making it harder for bacteria and yeast to grow.”

Downtown Charleston resident Kim Reed uses specialized wipes to clean her black Labrador retriever Cooper’s feet to combat his grass allergy.

“I make sure to also give him a bath once a week, especially in the summer, and I take him to dog parks where he can mostly swim in the water rather than running mostly on the grass,” Reed said. She also uses a dog day care that has artificial turf so that she doesn’t have to worry about the allergy getting worse while her 5-year-old pet is there.

Nancy Caldwell, owner of Coats and Tails Dog Grooming in West Ashley, also recommends frequent baths for dogs, especially in the summer months.

“Extra warmth means extra itching, so bathing regularly will help to get those allergens off their skin and fur,” Caldwell said. She recommends using hypoallergenic products when bathing animals with skin allergies.

Dogs who take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement or eat food fortified with omega-3 fatty acids show some improvement battling their environmental allergies, Thomas said.

He cautioned, however, that “it is always important to talk to your vet before you start a supplement regimen on your pet.”

Food allergies account for the third most common allergy among pets. Thomas said the most common food allergies in dogs and cats are beef, chicken, soy, wheat, egg, dairy, corn and lamb.

Thomas said many owners have opted for grain-free foods for their pets but he encourages pet owners to consult their vet before choosing a diet for their animal.

“Make sure your pet does not have any intestinal parasites as that can also increase the likelihood of food allergies and other GI issues,” he said.

Many people give their dogs or cats over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl or Zyrtec to fight the symptoms of allergies. As always, veterinarians do not suggest giving your pet an antihistamine without checking with your pet health care provider first.

“You will want to make sure your pet doesn’t have any health aversions to antihistamines,” Thomas said. “Also, you will need to ask (your veterinarian) about the correct dosage.”

For pets on veterinary-recommended regimen of antihistamines, Thomas cautioned their owners to avoid decongestant or cold and flu formulations.

In severe allergy cases, some owners turn to steroids to treat their pet’s maladies. West Ashley resident Meredith Mosny brings her 8-year-old tortoise shell cat, Meisha, to her vet once a month for a steroid shot to help the feline cope with skin allergies.

Left untreated, Meisha’s allergic reactions will promote her to scratch and chew off large areas of her fur.

“The monthly steroid shot does afford her some relief. If we miss a month, she will get irritated and either stop eating or overeat,” Mosny said.

In the battle against allergies, pets and people are not alone. Just as you might consult your doctor when the sneezing and itch eyes become too much to bear, so you can turn to your veterinarian when your pet’s itching reaches fever pitch. If the dog or cat’s quality of life is being interrupted, it’s time to see a vet.

“All dogs and cats will scratch from time to time,” Thomas said. “For patients that are scratching, licking, chewing throughout the night, or have skin and ear infections that create hair loss or odor, they should be seen by a vet so that the appropriate treatment can be instituted.”