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What you need to know about pet allergies

It has been estimated that somewhere in the region of 10-15 % of pets could be suffering from allergies. An allergy occurs when an animal (or person) reacts to something it has become ‘sensitised’ to. It’s an individual reaction and results in the immune system, which is normally used to protect against disease, over-reacting in response to the substance.  It can result in a number of different signs but mainly stomach upsets and diarrhoea, or skin trouble.

Need to know facts about allergy

-          An allergic reaction requires previous contact or exposure to the allergen
-          At some point during previous exposures the animal becomes ‘sensitised’
-          The next contact with the allergen after sensitisation results in an allergic reaction
-          Allergens are nearly always proteins
All of this means that an allergic reaction could occur at any time – even to something the animal has previously had contact with over many years.
Food allergy

Food allergies can cause digestive signs – gas or diarrhoea – and also skin signs, especially inflamed ears and itchy skin. Often pets have been eating the same food for two years or more when they develop an allergy to it. As a general rule, it’s often the protein that makes up the biggest part of the diet that becomes the allergen. Common food allergens are beef and dairy products.
If a dog has a true food allergy then eating just the smallest amount of the allergen will cause a reaction. Sometimes a trial diet is necessary to find out if a food allergy is present – this means totally avoiding one protein for a period of time so that it can be ruled in or out.  The process can take months and should be done with veterinary supervision in order to correctly identify the allergen.  Just giving a beef variety petfood instead of chicken variety doesn’t usually work as many petfoods contain several different meats and cereal proteins. If you suspect food allergy it is best to discuss it first with your vet. There are special prescription diets that can be used to find out if a food allergy could be a problem.
Another condition that can present in a similar way – often causing gut signs rather than skin signs – is food intolerance. It’s not an allergic condition even though it seems similar to food allergy. Food intolerance can occur the first time the food is fed and it isn’t usually caused by a reaction to a protein. Always speak to your vet if you suspect your pet is reacting adversely to its food.
Inhalant allergy and contact allergy

Atopy used to be termed an inhalant allergy but there is probably some element of contact allergy, with the allergen in contact with the skin adding to the problem. Examples of these types of allergen include grass pollen, dust mites or moulds. When this type of allergy starts it can often be seasonal but can progress to all year round. Allergies to indoor allergens like dust can occur all year round from the start.
It’s the most common type of allergy and usually affected animals chew their paws, rub their face along the ground and experience intense itching on the underside of the body. Some affected dogs sneeze, have watery eyes and nose but not all of them have these classic ‘hay fever’ type signs.
As it progresses atopy can cause thickened, greasy skin and bacterial infection. Rubbing an affected dog down with a towel after walks outdoors (if it appears that there are outdoor allergens) can help, as well as antihistamines and other medications prescribed by a vet. Some dogs need to have immunotherapy – individualised treatment which is effectively an attempt to desensitise the pet to the allergen.
Flea allergy

Flea allergy is the most common allergic skin disease and treatment of most allergic skin problems will normally include routinely treating for fleas. This is because just a few flea bites can be enough to trigger a reaction in affected animals. Given that fleas live most of their lifecycle away from the pet, it’s not always possible to see the fleas that have caused the reaction.
Pets with flea allergy often have itching, usually along the back and tail, with hair loss and blackening of the skin due to constant scratching. Cats sometimes itch around the neck. There may be small crusty bumps found on the skin. The feet and head are less likely to be affected.
As well as using an effective flea treatment, your vet may also need to prescribe medication to reduce the itch and treat any secondary bacterial infections. If neglected, those bacterial infections can be severe, so don’t underestimate the problem.
Dealing with pet allergy

Living with an allergic pet may mean changing your routines and habits to minimise exposure to allergens, therefore it is important to talk to your vet to get an accurate diagnosis. An allergy that’s allowed to persevere can result in  bacterial and yeast infections in the skin and changes to the gut lining, therefore it’s important to take the time to act an early stage and try and identify the root cause. Sometimes diagnosing an allergy means eliminating many other potential causes of skin and digestive tract disease, until allergy seems the most logical diagnosis. This can be a prolonged and potentially expensive process that can be complicated by other changes that have occurred as a result of the long standing nature of the condition. Act early and involve your vet.