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food allergies, flea allergy dermatitis, atopy

Allergies & Your Furry Friend

Did you know that dogs can suffer from allergies? Recently, as the prevalence of allergies in humans seems to be increasing, the prevalence in pets has increased as well. The symptoms of allergic reactions in pets are characterized by itching and scratching, which can lead to serious skin problems.

Dog allergies fall into the three main categories of food allergies, flea allergic dermatitis, and atopy. Many pets can be affected by more than one type of allergy. Continue reading to learn more about each of the three main types and how they can be treated.

Food Allergies

Causes & Symptoms
The exact cause of food allergies is unknown, but perhaps a change in a pet’s immune system induces the body to perceive certain foods as foreign substances and provokes an inflammatory response to fight off these intruders. The most common allergens are dairy products, cereals, beef, chicken, and eggs. If you notice excessive itching, licking, or chewing, your pet may have a food allergy. Some pets may also get ear infections or diarrhea and other digestive problems in response to a food allergen. Symptoms can appear at any age, regardless of whether a pet has switched to a new diet or has been eating the same food for years.

Diagnosis
The only way your veterinarian can diagnose a food allergy is to put your dog on a hypoallergenic or exclusion diet for at least 8-12 weeks. Because many food allergies come from a food’s source of protein, like beef, chicken, or egg, exclusion diets use proteins not normally found in pet food, such as venison, fish, or duck. An exclusion diet may be based on home prepared foods or prescription hypoallergenic products. If your pet has a food allergy, you should see a reduction in symptoms after your veterinarian’s recommended period on the exclusion diet. At this point, your veterinarian may suggest adding a single protein back into your pet’s diet every 1-2 weeks to identify all food allergens. If you see a recurrence or worsening of symptoms, remove the offending ingredient.

Treatment
The best way to treat your dog’s food allergy is simply to carefully monitor his  or her diet. In rare cases, your veterinarian may prescribe antihistamines or corticosteroids in addition to an exclusion diet.

Flea Allergy Dermatitis

Causes & Symptoms
Flea allergy dermatitis, or FAD, is a skin disease caused by an allergic reaction to flea saliva. If you see your dog chewing and biting at his back, legs, belly or tail, he may have FAD. Constant chewing at the skin often leads to ‘hot spots,’ hair loss, and skin infections. You might also find fleas or flea dirt on your pet, although many dogs with FAD have very few fleas due to excessive licking and chewing of the skin.

Diagnosis
Your veterinarian will inspect your pet’s skin for signs of scratching, skin sores, and the presence of fleas. He or she might also perform a skin test to determine if fleas are the source of the problem because FAD symptoms can closely resemble those of other problems, including external parasites, infections, and other allergies.

Treatment
The best way to treat FAD is to eliminate fleas! Your veterinarian can recommend the best insecticide or insect growth regulator to terminate your home’s flea infestation. Daily vacuuming and regular washing of your pet’s bedding will also help reduce your flea population. To break the cycle of scratching that causes skin sores and infections, your veterinarian may also recommend corticosteroids, antihistamines, and essential fatty acids to relieve skin irritation. A soothing warm bath with anti-itch shampoo can also help. Keep in mind that there is no real cure for FAD; a pet with an allergy to flea bites will always have that allergy. Therefore, flea prevention is key.

Atopy

Causes & Symptoms
Atopy is an allergy to airborne substances in the environment, including pollen, mold, dust mites, and animal dander. A pet’s likelihood of having an environmental allergy depends on individual genetic susceptibility as well as the amount of exposure to the allergen itself. Certain breeds, including Terriers, Setters, Retrievers, Dalmatians, and Chinese Shar-Peis are especially prone to atopy. The primary symptom of atopy is itching, mainly around the face, feet, lower chest, and belly. Frequent scratching can cause ‘hot spots,’ various skin infections, ear problems, and hair loss. Keep in mind, symptoms may occur seasonally or year-round, depending on the source of the allergy.

Diagnosis
Atopy is diagnosed by a process of elimination. Your veterinarian will ask for a detailed history of your pet’s itching problem. Once other causes of itching, such as fleas, mites, lice, and food allergies, have been ruled out, skin or serum (blood) testing may be performed to determine the exact cause.

Treatment
While there is no cure for atopy, there are plenty of methods for managing symptoms. Your veterinarian may suggest anti-itch treatment, including the use of drugs or medicated shampoos. It can also be helpful to remove the allergen from your pet’s environment as much as possible. An alternative option of treatment is immunotherapy, which uses a series of injections to gradually accustom your pet’s immune system to the allergy causing the problem. Although its effectiveness varies, it provides relief for around 75% of pets with atopy. For mild cases, especially such as seasonal itching due to a pollen allergy, you can use an Elizabethan collar, t-shirts, or socks to prevent your pet from biting his skin and thus reduce irritation and infection.