Itchy skin - could it be an allergy?
Did you know that it’s not just parasites that can give your pet an itchy skin? Allergies are immune reactions in which an animal responds abnormally to common, usually harmless substances; these substances are called allergens.
Our pets come into contact with allergens in three main ways: allergens can be inhaled (eg from pollens), contact (eg flea bite allergy where certain pets develop an allergy to flea saliva) and ingested (eg food allergies).
Inhaled allergies are common at this time of year during the spring and summer months a splurge in pollen levels can lead to seasonal allergies in humans and pets alike. However, the symptoms are often very different; whilst humans get ‘hay fever’ and sneeze, affected pets may show generalised itchiness, but more commonly may show localised signs of paw chewing, face rubbing and itchy ears (which can in itself lead to recurrent ear infections).
Flea allergies are another common problem. Whilst fleas will irritate most pets, some pets (especially cats) become allergic to flea saliva, leading to very intense irritation and sometimes extensive hair loss caused by over grooming.
Food allergies can present both with symptoms of diarrhoea and/or dermatitis (itchy skin).
Diagnosis of allergies can be tricky, but blood tests and skin testing can help to identify substances in the environment that individual animals are allergic to. Food allergy trials can enable identification of food allergies too. Common culprits include various pollens, fleas and house-dust mites, as well as food ingredients such as beef, pork and wheat.
The best form of treatment, which is usually life-long, is to minimise the exposure of the pet to the allergen. Flea saliva allergies are generally improved by effective flea control, whilst food allergies may be improved by a new diet that avoids the problem food. Inhaled allergens are more difficult to control, but new forms of medication can be helpful in reducing itching.
If your pets gets itchy for no obvious reason, has recurrent ear problems or has a very sensitive stomach it could be an allergy. If this is the case, a visit to your vet for a check-up is the way forward.
Chris Devlin BVSc MRCVS is a Vet and Partner at Hillside Veterinary Centre in Corfe Mullen. w: www.hillsidevets.co.uk.