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Got itch? Suffering the Spring- and Summer-time Blues of Seasonal Allergies

By Dr. Patty Khuly

Seasonal Allergies

I practice veterinary medicine in South Florida where it’s warm all year round. Unless you’re a true lover of having all four seasons, this would seem to be a boon, weather-wise (at least during wintertime!). If you’re a dog or cat who happens to suffer from seasonal allergies, however, you’d probably be bummed. There’s no respite for the itchy here. Not when autumn and winter roll into spring and summer with nary a blip on the forecast – except the possibility of a hurricane, of course, and maybe a forty-something degree cold front or two.

There is one little bright spot though. Being treated to twelve months’ worth of “seasonal” allergies means I’m in possession of some unique insights into the workings of this common canine and feline disease. To that end I’ve prepared a little primer. Here goes my take on this frustrating malady:

What are seasonal allergies?

Seasonal allergies in dogs and cats occur whenever proteins in the environment gather in quantities large enough to elicit an allergic response in a pet’s skin. These proteins (allergens) can come from the pollen produced by grasses, trees, and weeds, mold spores, house dust mites, insects, animal dander, human skin, natural fibers, and other sources of proteins. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not caused by lawn chemicals, cleaning products, or artificial fragrances. Naturally-occurring proteins (all the organic stuff) are the source of this scourge.

Since these allergens tend not to remain constant in climates with a pronounced seasonality and will wax and wane even in places like Miami (where I live), we refer to the allergies they cause as “seasonal.” Medically speaking, however, seasonal allergies are referred to as “atopic dermatitis.”

Seasonal Allergy Symptoms

And yes, you heard right: it’s dermatitis, as in skin disease. Because they tend to get skin symptoms that begin with redness, irritation, and itching, this allergic disease is almost exclusively considered a condition of the skin. Instead of the hay fever or asthma we humans tend to experience whenever our immune system overreacts to allergens, our pets will suffer the wrath of skin rashes and infections instead. Here are some common symptoms of seasonal allergies:

  • itching, redness, pustules, wheals (like hives), and crusts
  • secondary skin infections that can be moist and smelly
  • the face, legs, feet, belly, ears, and rear end are most often affected
  • ear infections are common, especially in dogs,
  • in cats, excessive licking in a symmetrical pattern (on the back, belly and behind the legs is most common) or tiny crusts around the neck or tail base (known as miliary dermatitis).

Seasonality of these symptoms is typical. But, as I mentioned, a constant flaring up and down is most typical of pets who live in places like South Florida where seasonality is a highly subjective experience. Severely-affected pets may also appear to suffer constant episodes, regardless of where they live.

Once these symptoms appear, the goal is to determine whether any other skin diseases are amiss. Hormone-related skin issues and other allergies (to foods and insects, for example) can look just like seasonal allergies. Differentiating one from the other is typically accomplished through feeding trials, courses of highly-effective flea medications and blood testing.

Are seasonal allergies in pets a genetic condition?

Sadly, this is one disease pets are most likely to inherit. It’s considered so closely linked to their genetics that veterinarians like me wonder what breeders whose pets propagate these traits may be thinking. After all, it’s one of those diseases that manifests between four months and four years of age, typically long before a decision about breeding is made. Consequently, there’s no excuse for breeding these pets.

Think about it this way: It’s like breeding a dog with mild hip dysplasia. It may not seem like a big deal to the parent, but a percentage of the babies will be severely affected. It’s just not ethical to breed these pets!

Treatment of Seasonal Allergies in Dogs and Cats

Okay, so I’m off my soapbox now and onto the solution, because that’s what matters once you’ve already established that your dog is suffering from seasonal allergies. This is a three-step process:

  1. Treat the secondary infections.
  2. Treat the itching.
  3. Prevent the allergic reaction.

Ideally we’d skip straight to number three. In real life, however, we have to deal with the signs of the disease while we’re busy determining the cause of the problem. Getting rid of secondary infections with antibiotics, antifungal medications, and all manner of topical treatments throws water on the flames. Oral and injectable medications help keep the itch from adding kindling. Only then would we be in a position to test our patients via blood or skin tests to determine what they’re reacting to.

Once identified, these allergens can be addressed by making a custom vaccine that helps gradually minimize a patient’s immune response to the offending proteins, effectively reducing the allergy… over time.

Unfortunately, it takes quite a bit of time in some cases. And may even prove only marginally effective. Which is why lots of people opt to treat the itching alone. Now that we have plenty of newfangled drugs that are way safer than corticosteroids, this has become a perfectly acceptable (and even preferred) approach in many cases.

But, of course, nothing beats true prevention. And that means keeping all affected dogs out of the genetic pool.

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