Pets with Allergies


4 questions answered
By Erin Pagel

Itching. Sneezing. Scratching. When your cat or dog has allergies, it can be a miserable experience for both you and your furry friend. To make matters worse, Fluffy’s and Fido’s attempts to relieve the symptoms by scratching and grooming aggressively only serve to make the situation worse. 

Here are four things to know about allergies in pets.

  1. What allergies can pets have?

There are two common types of cat and dog allergies: Environmental Allergies: Many pet allergies are due to environmental triggers in the home or outside. Some are seasonal like pollens, trees or grasses. Owners will identify that the problem occurs at the same time every year (typically mirroring the allergy season of humans). Relief in winter can indicate a seasonal environmental allergy. 

Other environmental allergies can be a year-round response to molds, dust or mildew in your pet’s environment. Even some fabrics, laundry detergents and flea treatments can play a role.

Food Allergies: Just like humans can be allergic to certain foods, so can our pets. Wheat, corn and meats are common allergens. Cats could be allergic to grain, proteins or preservatives in kibble. 

2. What are symptoms for allergies in pets?

Pets suffering from allergies commonly scratch aggressively, leading to red spots, scabs and skin infections. 

Utica resident Courtnie Garteski Bergler recalls that before getting their German Wirehaired Pointer’s allergies under control, the dog “would get a rash all over her skin, itch uncontrollably and sneeze continuously.” 

Dr. Darlene Cook of The Bluffs Pet Clinic of Red Wing notes that suffering pets can also display scooting, licking at their anal glands, and digestive problems. Watery, red eyes can be another symptom. Some pets can become depressed and less active or even anxious.

3. What are treatment options?

There is help and hope for pets with allergies. To treat minor symptoms, consider an over-the-counter human antihistamine. Products such as Benadryl can be effective in treating lesser symptoms. (Improper dosing can be hazardous, so work closely with your vet.) 

Creams that contain hydrocortisone and oatmeal-based shampoos can help relieve minor itching (if you can get Fluffy in the tub). 

For more severe allergies, visit your veterinarian to help narrow down the potential culprits. If scratching continues long after the last lily has wilted, your pet’s food may be the culprit, and your vet may put Fido on a food trial. Your pet will be limited to a single protein and vegetable, no table scraps and no treats for 8 to 12 weeks. (Sorry Fido.) 

If environmental causes are suspected, your vet will likely perform an allergy test to identify problem allergens. A specialized serum containing small quantities of these allergens will be injected in small amounts over time (several months to years). According to Dr. Cook, approximately 60 to 75 percent of pets with allergies benefit from this approach.

Your vet may prescribe antibiotics to manage any active infections due to scratching and licking. Steroids may provide immediate relief. If allergies continue to worsen, steroid doses will need to be continually increased. Unfortunately, long-term side effects are still not entirely known. 

Newer, non-steroid treatments such as Apoquel and Cytopoint have been used successfully to treat pet allergies in the past few years. These drugs directly target Fluffy’s and Fido’s itching and inflammation. Dr. Cook notes that though these drugs can be effective, the pet will eventually fail to respond to them and, as with steroids, the long-term effects are unknown.

Acupuncture: There are alternatives to treating your pet’s allergies with steroids and drugs. One such option is pet acupuncture. Dr. Cook, a certified veterinary acupuncturist, notes that “acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to correct imbalances in people and identify the root cause of the problem.” 

Per Dr. Cook, “herbal therapies and acupuncture are directed at addressing the underlying imbalance, thereby reducing sensitivity to allergens.” 

Cook adds that though acupuncture is not a once-and-done approach to allergy treatment, most pet owners report seeing a noticeable difference within a few treatments. Most pets will continue acupuncture at various intervals (monthly to every 3 to 6 months) to maintain the benefits. 

4. Is there a cure?

It’s possible for a pet’s immune system to change and for the pet to grow out of an allergy, but in general pet allergies cannot be cured.

Most pets who suffer have lifetime issues and require a long-term treatment plan, even if Fido’s symptoms subside in the winter. Seasonal allergies may worsen each year, starting earlier in the spring and lasting longer into the fall until they become yearlong allergies. 

Allergy testing, allergy shots and acupuncture may seem expensive, but considering the cost of repeated veterinary visits and medications to treat skin, ear and anal gland problems, they may actually be the cheaper option over time. 

Dr. Cook suggests owners consider their goal: “Do you just want to treat the symptoms of scratching, repeated skin and/or ear infections? Or is your goal to get to the root of the problem? Have a talk with your pet’s doctor about available options. Talk to other people who have pets with allergies that are being treated successfully” and make a plan. Fluffy and Fido will thank you. 

Erin Pagel is a freelance writer and animal lover living in Rochester.