Like humans, pets can suffer from allergies that cause discomfort and misery. People generally suffer from respiratory signs, but allergic pets typically develop skin, ear, and gastrointestinal (GI) problems. The Peak City Veterinary Hospital team created this guide to help pet owners learn about allergy signs, diagnosis, and management, to reduce the impact of allergies on their furry pal’s health.

What are allergies and what causes them in pets?

An allergy is an immune system overreaction to a normally harmless substance. In response to an allergen or trigger, the immune system releases histamines and other chemicals. Although the attack is aimed at an outside trigger, the body’s tissues take the brunt of the resulting inflammation. Frequent allergy triggers in pets include environmental allergens (i.e., pollen, mold, dander, dust mites), certain foods, and flea bites.  

Allergy signs in pets

Allergic inflammation most often affects a pet’s skin, and the pet responds with excessive licking, scratching, rubbing, chewing, or biting. The pet’s paws, ears, belly, and hind end are most frequently affected, although any skin area can be involved. Most allergy types present in a similar way, making them difficult to diagnose based on clinical signs alone. However, flea allergies often cause hair loss in a specific pattern, starting at the tail base. Some pets with food allergies may develop GI issues, such as intermittent vomiting or chronic diarrhea. Recurrent ear infections, anal gland inflammation, and respiratory problems like sneezing, wheezing, or coughing can also indicate environmental or food allergies. 

Allergy diagnosis in pets

An allergy diagnosis is often assumed based on your pet’s clinical signs and history, but our team must run specific tests to rule out other problems that can mimic allergies. We may also prescribe allergy medications or other treatments to gauge your pet’s response, which can confirm the diagnosis. Possible recommended tests include:

  • Skin scraping to look for parasites
  • Skin cytology to check for bacterial or yeast-based skin infections
  • Fungal culture to check for dermatophytes, the fungi that cause athlete’s foot and ringworm
  • Blood testing to check for antibodies against environmental allergens
  • Elimination diet trial to check for food allergies
  • Skin biopsy or referral to a veterinary dermatologist for an additional work-up

Allergy treatment and management in pets

Unfortunately, allergies cannot be permanently cured, but they can be managed. Our team uses a multi-modal approach to allergy management, adjusting treatments based on each pet’s response and allergy severity. Most allergic pets need life-long therapy and periodic flare-ups are common. 

Treatment options are often combined and may include:

  • Avoidance — Limiting allergen exposure by installing air filters, frequently bathing pets, and wiping paws after coming in from outside
  • Prescription food — Specialized hypoallergenic diets to diagnose and treat food allergies
  • Medications — Anti-itch medications, such as Apoquel, Cytopoint, corticosteroids, or cyclosporine, suppress inflammation and the immune response. Antihistamines are effective in some dogs with mild allergies, and antibiotics or antifungals are used to treat secondary infections.
  • Immunotherapy — Injections or oral drops to desensitize the immune system to specific environmental allergens over time
  • Topicals — Medicated shampoos, conditioners, creams, and sprays to treat inflammation and secondary infections
  • Supplements — Probiotics and fish oil may be useful supplements to reduce inflammation
  • Flea prevention — Flea prevention is critical for any itchy pet, whether or not fleas are a known allergen. 

Allergy complications in pets

The inflammation that occurs in allergies can cause a breakdown in the skin’s normal barrier function. This allows bacteria and yeast that normally live on the skin and in the ears to overgrow and cause infections, which then increase a pet’s itchiness and discomfort. Good allergy management is aimed not only at minimizing inflammation but also at preventing and treating secondary infections.

Pet allergies can be challenging to control. Our Peak City Veterinary Hospital team works closely with pet owners to identify each pet’s specific triggers and create a treatment protocol that optimizes comfort level and long-term health. Contact us to schedule a visit if your pet shows allergy signs, or to learn more about allergy manifestation in pets.