Your dog has been scratching non-stop and your cat has an ear infection. Again. The bad news is that allergies among pets are on the increase. So what can you do about it?
"Quite a lot, actually," says Dr Ninette Keller, specialist veterinarian and lecturer at the Onderstepoort Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. "But, the most important thing to remember, though, is that there is no quick fix for pet allergies, just as there is no quick fix for allergies in humans."
Most common allergens
There are four main allergens that affect pets – parasites, airborne allergens, food and environmental allergens.
Parasites that typically cause allergies include fleas, lice and mange. Flea allergy is the most common allergy in South Africa. Airborne allergens include pollen, mould spores and dust mites. The most common food allergens for dogs are beef, dairy and wheat, and in cats, beef, dairy and fish. Environmental allergens include grasses and synthetic or natural fibres, but this allergy is relatively rare.
Most common allergies
The most common allergies among pets, are fleabite allergies, atopy (hay fever) and food allergies – in that order. These conditions affect both cats and dogs.
Fleabite allergies can cause extremely itchy skin, which can cause pets to scratch more or less non-stop. This can lead to hair loss and severe discomfort.
"Animals will simply scratch themselves to pieces," says Keller. "It can happen that an animal can lose all its hair because of this."
Atopy, or hay fever, is the third most common allergy in cats and the second most common in dogs. It is very common in areas where the pollen count in the air is high. It tends to be a seasonal allergy and is commonly found in the Highveld and in the coastal areas of South Africa.
Last, but certainly not the least on the list are food allergies. This manifests most often in intestinal problems, the symptoms of which are diarrhoea, flatulence and stomach cramps. Food allergies also often lead to recurring ear infections and 80% of food allergies present with an infection of the ear canal.
Treating allergies in pets
Treating Fido or Fluffy's allergic reaction is not a simple process, according to Keller. Many pet owners hope for a quick fix in one visit to the vet, but the situation is a little more complex than that.
It is essential that owners inform the vet on all aspects involving the pet’s life – habits, diet, daily routine and so forth. According to Keller, lack of information on these issues often leads to misdiagnosis of the causes of allergies.
But where should one start?
"The first thing to do is to rule out parasites," says Keller. "There is no point in deflea-ing only one dog, or deflea-ing the animals and not treating the home environment."
High levels of fatty acids in the diet can reduce skin inflammation and can improve the coat of your pet. Many animals who have had allergies for years also get into the habit of scratching – whether they are itching or not.
"Treating food allergies is a fairly lengthy process, that requires owner commitment. A novel protein diet is usually prescribed, that contains a protein the animal is not used to, such as duck, salmon or ostrich. Vets will usually recommend specialised diet formula from one of the major brands, such as Hill’s Science Diet, Eukanuba or Royal Canin. It is essential that the pet eats nothing else for eight weeks (so no table scraps) and then the foodstuff that is causing the problem can be identified as foodstuffs are introduced one by one," according to Keller.
Up until now, exact identification of allergens has been problematic, but diagnosis has now been made easier by the development of an allergen-free food by Hill's Science Diet which is specifically aimed at the diagnosis and nutritional management of food allergy and food intolerance.
Switching to a new brand of food could help to put an end to both diarrheoa and skin ailments in pets. Vets refer to the so-called "itch threshold", the stage of an allergic reaction where a pet starts scratching. The right treatment and new diet, such as Hill's Prescription Diet d/d, can have the desired outcome. Ask your vet about which food he/she would recommend.
Pet allergies are on the increase, so if you have one, be on the lookout when it starts to scratch, has recurrent ear infections, or constant diarrhoea.
Tips from Dr Keller on pet allergies
Corticosteroids can give short-term relief to a pet, but is not a long-term option, as it can have other detrimental effects.
Put a flea collar inside your vacuum cleaner bag, if you are re-using the bag. Unless you do this, you will just be adding to the flea problem in your house.
Treating allergies in pets requires real owner commitment. Stick to the special diet. One slip can undo eight weeks of careful monitoring. So no feeding Fido from the table.
Homemade diets, such as cooked chicken and rice are not nutritionally complete and should not be used for long-term feeding.
It is very important to check the list of ingredients, so you know what's in the food you're feeding your pet. Legislation rules that pet food merely include minimum and maximum percentage of ingredients, but the one listed first is usually the most prevalent ingredient to be found in that product. Make sure that it contains good starch and good protein (for dogs) and good proteins (for cats).
If something says "chicken flavour" on the tin, it might contain no chicken at all, but merely artificial chicken flavourant.
Flea control and a good diet make up a winning combination in the battle against pet allergies.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated April 2011)