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My Dog Won’t Stop Scratching: Understanding Pet Allergies

My Dog Won’t Stop Scratching: Understanding Pet Allergies

Are Pet Allergies Causing Your Dog To Constantly Scratch And Chew Themselves?

Fall in the Ozarks brings less humidity, cooler weather, colored leaves, and unfortunately ragweed.  Fall means hay fever symptoms in people and allergic dermatitis in our pets. Unlike humans, most pets show signs of allergies through their skin. So, what are pet allergies? An allergy is a state of over-reactivity or hypersensitivity to an allergen. Most allergens are proteins. The allergen protein may be of insect, plant or animal origin.  Some allergens are inhaled, some allergens are ingested and some allergens cause contact irritation. No matter the route of exposure, the end result is an itchy dog if your pet suffers from allergies. The itching is caused by an overactive immune system reaction. This can sometimes happen with the first allergen exposure but often it requires multiple exposures to the offending allergen. An antibody in the blood called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) binds to the allergen protein.  This allergen-IgE complex then attaches to a Mast Cell. When attached to an allergen complex, Mast Cells break up and release potent inflammatory compounds such as histamine. This starts the inflammatory cascade and the allergic reaction. This allergic reaction can happen anywhere on the skin of your dog.  The medical term for this is allergic dermatitis or atopy.

ALLERGENS:

There are numerous substances that can act as allergens. Flea saliva, tick saliva, tree pollens (cedar, oak, ash), flower pollens, grasses and weed pollens (ragweed), as well as molds, mildew, and house dust mites are the most common allergy offenders.  Some plant and animal proteins found in foods can cause allergies as well as some food additives.  The most common cause of allergies in our pets is fleas and the least common cause of allergies is food.  Up to 80% of our pets with allergic dermatitis are very allergic to fleas so flea control is absolutely essential in the allergic pet.

SIGNS OF ALLERGIC DERMATITIS:

The most common sign of allergies is itching of the skin –either in one area or generalized over the body. Itchy signs can include chewing and licking of the feet, rubbing or pawing at the face or eyes, rubbing the head or ears along the carpet or sofa, rubbing the belly or rear on the floor, and redness of the skin in the affected areas.  Many pets will lick their armpits, thighs, belly or abdomen. Scratching at the ears or ear flicking and head shaking is also indicative of allergies. The constant scratching and licking can result in a secondary bacterial skin infection.  Other signs of allergies may also include reoccurring ear infections, full anal glands and anal gland infections.

BREEDS PREDISPOSITION :

Many dog breeds are predisposed to allergies.  Terrier breeds as a group are the most commonly affected dogs that we see in our practice. Schnauzers, Westies, Scottish, Cairn, Welsh, Fox, Boston and Jack Russell Terriers are just a few that can be afflicted with allergies.  Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Boxers, Bulldogs, Shih Tzus, Cocker Spaniels, and Shepherds are also commonly affected breeds.   Most pets will start showing allergy signs between one and three years of age.  Initially, many allergies will occur seasonally when the allergen is at its peak.  But each year, the allergy season starts a little earlier and lasts a little longer and the allergies worsen. Eventually, with time, allergic dermatitis can become year-round.  Allergens such as house dust mites, molds and mildew are present any season and pets sensitive to these will suffer year-round.

Happy Puppy Dog Free From Allergy Symptoms

Happy Puppy Dog Free From Symptoms of Pet Allergies

TREATMENT:

The best way to treat allergies is to individualize the treatment to your pet and to treat that patient with the lowest dose or frequency of medication possible because allergies are a life long problem. Eventually, your pet may need medication daily to control its allergies so starting with lower dose therapy initially will be of benefit. Keep in mind that some animals will respond better to different aspects of the therapy than others and some therapies may not work at all.  Also remember that allergies are controlled and not cured. Seven possible allergy treatments include frequent bathing, antihistamine therapy, fatty acid supplementation, anti-inflammatory therapy, cyclosporine therapy, desensitization therapy, and/or food allergy trial.  And as mentioned earlier, flea and tick control is essential in the allergic patient.

Keep in mind that each allergy patient is different and each treatment will be individualized to that pet. Some therapies will work better than others for different pets. Above all, remember that allergies are controlled at best.  Allergies are not cured. Close communication with your veterinarian is essential in keeping your allergy pet as comfortable as possible.

BATHING:

Frequent bathing helps physically remove irritants that are on the surface of your pet’s skin.  Bathing also helps control and removes infection causing bacteria from the skin.  Some pets need be bathed weekly. It is very important to use a high-quality, hypoallergenic or medicated shampoo that will not dry out or irritate your pet’s skin when used regularly. Be sure to thoroughly rinse your pet after its bath. Your veterinarian will recommend the best shampoo and the best bathing schedule for your pet.  Consider having your long-haired pet’s coat shaved during allergy season to assist you in bathing.

ANTIHISTAMINES:

Antihistamines work the same in our pets as they do in us.  By decreasing the release of inflammatory mediators, antihistamines help alleviate the symptoms of allergies.  As is the case with people, different antihistamines will affect our pets in different ways.  Some pets will become sleepy, others may become excitable, and some may show a decrease in appetite.  Despite these few side effects, antihistamines are relatively safe to use on a daily basis and are most effective when given prior to and regularly through the allergy season. The biggest benefit to using these medications is that it allows us to avoid using steroids or allows us to use a lower dose of steroids.

FATTY ACIDS:

Fatty acids are compounds in the body that are used as building blocks to form compounds such as histamine and prostaglandins.  Histamines are compounds that can cause inflammation and allergies.  Supplementing the diet with a non-body source of fatty acids may actually help decrease the amount of inflammatory mediators produced by the body because the oral fatty acid gets metabolized into different, less potent inflammatory mediators. Fatty acid supplements work in about 30 % of our patients. It is believed that some antihistamines and fatty acids work synergistically to achieve an even greater effect.  Fatty acids also help moisturize and improve the condition of the hair coat which is important in our allergy patients.

STEROIDS:

Steroids are used when the above therapies are not effective or the allergies are so severe that the patient needs relief.  Steroids are often used to help a patient survive through allergy season until allergy testing and desensitization therapy can be initiated. Steroids basically turn off the over-reactive immune system. Steroids do have side effects some of which can be serious. The most common side effects are increased thirst and urination, increased appetite and weight gain.  Steroids also predispose pets to infections, especially bladder infections. Steroids can also interfere with your pet’s own hormonal regulation. There are short acting and long acting steroids. The severity of side effects is directly related to the potency of the steroid used.  There are two basic forms of steroids. There is an injectable form and a pill form.  The injectable form can last in your pet’s system for 2 to 3 months. The tablet form usually lasts for about a day.  It is safer for your pet to be on the oral tablets at a graduated, tapered dose.  The injectable form is used when your pet’s allergies are so severe that immediate relief is needed.  Steroid treatment is a serious therapy that requires close attention by your veterinarian.

ALLERGY TESTING & DESENSITIZATION THERAPY:

This is the gold standard for a patient with allergic dermatitis.  Your pet may either be skin tested or have blood drawn for an allergy test.  The skin test involves injecting diluted allergens into your pet’s skin and looking for a flare skin reaction.  The blood test is done in a specialized laboratory. The test looks for blood levels of IgE in response to antigens. Most allergy testing is done in the winter when your pet is no longer receiving medications. Once it is determined what your pet is allergic to, an allergen-specific immune serum can be compounded.  This serum will have low levels of antigen that your pet will be exposed to by injections over a period of time – in effect desensitizing your pet to the allergens.  The exact mechanism of action of immunotherapy is still unknown in the dog but it is postulated that immunotherapy decreases the levels of IgE antibodies and increases the levels of IgG antibodies along with altering T-helper cell response.  Overall, desensitization improves allergy symptoms in about 50% of patients and the results can be very gratifying.

CYCLOSPORINE THERAPY:

Cyclosporine is a chemotherapy drug. It has been altered and formulated into a low dose oral tablet called Atopica. Atopica is a potent immunosuppressor of T- helper cells and inhibits interleukin -2 which is an inflammatory mediator. These two actions help turn off the over reactive immune system response and provide relief for the allergy pet.  Atopica does not suppress cell- mediated immune responses and therefore overall doesn’t adversely affect the pet’s ability to fight infections.  It is only approved for use it dogs.

APOQUEL:

Is the newest generation anti-inflammatory medication used to control itching associated with allergic dermatitis? We have now treated over 80 patients at Deerfield in the past year with this new medication and have seen very positive results.  Apoquel targets the pet’s immune system. It specifically addresses that part of the immune system that is involved in the itch and inflammatory response.  Unlike

DON’T FORGET ABOUT FLEAS:

No amount of allergy treatment in the world will relieve your pet’s itching if your pet has fleas.  As stated earlier, 80% of our pets with allergies are also allergic to fleas.  It may take only one or two flea bites to cause an allergic reaction in your pet.  One flea is one flea too many for a pet with allergies.  Flea control is essential for an allergy patient.

We know it can be stressful to see your pet suffer. Feel free to contact us for further help and advise regarding your pet.

Got Questions? Just Ask. We’re here to help!

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Pet Food Marketing Is Confusing and Misleading

We all want to find the freshest ingredients and highest quality foods when preparing meals for our families.  It’s also likely that we want the best food for our pets too.

You’ve probably heard the terms “natural”, “organic” or even “human-grade” when referring to pet food.  But what do they actually mean?

The pet food market has become extremely competitive and very confusing.  More than 3,000 different brands of food sit on store shelves and highly paid, successful ad agencies are often recruited to find ways to convince pet owners that their particular brand is the very best.

Much of this marketing uses the term “natural” and other key words that are really designed just to motivate you.  Much of it has little to do with the quality of the food.  In fact, according to PetfoodIndustry.com, the “natural” pet products market in the US is expected to double to more than $9 billion by 2017.

So, do any of these marketing buzz-words have actual significance?

According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the term “natural” does have legal meaning. The FDA, who actually has authority over pet food manufacturing and label claims, does not give a definition to “natural” but has not objected to its use as long as the foods do not contain artificial flavors, added colors or synthetic substances.

Organic signLike “natural”, the word “organic” also has been legally defined.  Pet foods and treats that wish to be labeled as organic must meet standards set forth by the National Organic Program.  These requirements include both how the food is grown as well as how it is handled.  Additionally, organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and no antibiotics or growth hormones can be given.

But, please remember this, despite modern folklore and Internet rumors, organically grown foods have not been shown to be superior in either nutrition or health. It has become one of those huge marketing gimmicks used to motivate you to buy something that may or may not be good for your pet family members.

The use of the term “natural” also does not always mean healthy or even safe.  A prime case in point is a naturally occurring mycotoxin known as Aflatoxin that can cause serious liver disease in dogs and occasionally sparks pet food recalls, many of these brands are labeled “natural”.

Unfortunately, many pet owners are swayed by other labels and none of them has a legally defined meaning.  One of the worst offenders is the use of the term “human grade” or “human quality”.  A pet food company that markets this way is implying that their pet food is edible for people.  AAFCO has stated that using these terms without meeting all federal regulations is a misbranding of the product. This is government-speak for mis-leading, some would call it fraud.

When you see the term “human-grade” in marketing or on bags of foods, remember that this term has no significant meaning for pet diets.

So, what about all these marketing gimmicks?  Can you always trust foods sold as “premium”, “holistic” or even “gourmet”?  It’s important to remember that all of this promotion is designed for your benefit, not your pets.  How do we choose correctly, safely and also economically?

First, find a food that has undergone AAFCO feeding trials.   This statement can be found on the bag’s label and assures you that  the food is digestible, palatable and that your pets can successfully use the nutrients in the food.  Next, look at the price.  If you are paying less than a dollar per pound of food, that diet won’t work.  You will end up feeding more just to meet your pet’s energy and nutritional requirements.  Look for a food that costs around $1-2 per pound.

Grain free dog food labelFinally, ask your veterinary team about the reputations of pet food companies and for their recommendations.  After all, who knows your pet and their needs better?

As you can see, it’s easy to become confused when the Madison Avenue ad agencies start working their magic.  Your veterinarian and their staff will often have some sound advice concerning pet nutrition.  Better yet, it will often come without all the marketing hype!  The relationship between you and your pets is personal, and the relationship you have with your veterinarian is personal.  Rely on that, not on the impersonal decisions made in a board room.

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Itchy Pets are Miserable Pets!

Seeing a beloved pet scratch often leads many owners think their pets have fleas.   When trips to the veterinarian and doses of flea products fail to resolve the itchiness, it is time to think about environmental allergies, or ATOPY.

Just like people, our pets can suffer from allergies and sensitivities to particles in the air.  Many times, pollen, certain grasses and trees or even dust mites can trigger this reaction in pets.

Unlike people though, our pets rarely sneeze and show signs similar to “hay fever”.  Instead, our pets are itchy and they will do anything to relieve that sensation.  Some pets scratch constantly, others lick and chew at certain spots, like their feet and still others might rub against carpets and furniture.  This behavior, and the consistent noises and thumps produced, is often too much for many pet owners.  Sadly, some pets are relinquished to shelters or rescues due to a condition that is actually manageable.

Whenever your pet is itchy, it is important to remember that external parasites or even food allergies can cause very similar symptoms.  Your veterinarian must help you distinguish between flea bite allergies, food allergies or atopy.

According to Dr. Kimberly Coyner, a board certified veterinary dermatologist with the Dermatology Clinic for Animals in Las Vegas, about 10% of dogs suffer from atopy and some cats can develop this condition as well.  Many pets will start showing signs as early as six months of age and most will occur before the animal is five years old.

Beyond the itchiness (known medically as pruritus), pets might also show recurrent skin and ear infections or seem to be obsessed with licking their paws.  These symptoms most commonly occur in warm weather for pets with pollen or dust allergies, but can also occur year round in some cases.

Diagnostic tests for atopy try to determine what allergens are causing your pet’s problems.  Blood tests are often convenient since they can be done by most veterinarians, but Dr. Coyner cautions that this method has drawbacks.  Skin testing (similar to scratch testing in people) is the gold standard for determining what is causing your pets allergies and is more accurate than blood tests.

While not simple, atopy can be managed with baths, medications, managing the environment and sometimes with immunotherapy.  You’ll need good communication with your veterinarian and maybe a veterinary dermatologist!

First, for pets that suffer seasonal allergies, being prepared ahead of time is key.  Some mildly suffering pets can benefit from daily cool water rinses and a fragrance free shampoo one to two times weekly.  Clipping longhaired pets decreases the allergen load and makes bathing easier.

Pollen counts in the home can be reduced by asking family and visitors to remove their shoes at the door.  Routine vacuuming of areas that the pets frequent and washing of pet bedding in mild, fragrance free detergents can also limit the allergen exposure inside.

Some pet owners opt for antihistamines to help provide relief, but experts caution that they are only effective in 30-40% of dogs.  Other owners insist that “steroid shots” or pills are the answer.  However steroids simply decrease the symptoms and do not solve the problem – and they are not without secondary side effects.

Ideally, all pets with atopy would undergo skin testing and then start an allergen specific immunotherapy, guided by a veterinary dermatologist.   By slowly exposing the pet to increasing quantities of the allergen, this immunotherapy can actually “desensitize” the pet and, over time, help reduce the severity of the symptoms.  Dr. Coyner says that 70-75% of allergic pets respond to this treatment and it takes several months to become effective, so it is not a certain cure or a “quick-fix”.

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