In my region, the arrival of spring brings the blossoming of tulips, daffodils – and the pollen count. While it feels a little bit like the entire city is “waking up” from its winter hibernation, for those of us that suffer from seasonal allergies, the city isn’t the only thing waking up. Unfortunately, our pets can be susceptible to the effects of pollen and other inhaled allergens as well.
Both spring and fall bring a rise in the number of patients I see with allergies. Inhaled allergies (or atopy, as veterinarians call it) occur when the immune system is overly sensitive to substances like pollens. While symptoms in our pets may mimic our own (itchy, runny eyes and nose, and sneezing), more commonly atopy shows itself in pets’ skin and ears.
A dog or cat with atopy is itchy. Some pets are itchy all over, but in general, the itchiest spots are the belly, armpits, face, ears and feet.
If your pet is scratching more than usual this spring, it’s best to get them to the vet as soon as you can. Prolonged scratching at itchy skin and ears can quickly lead to infection, making them even more itchy and painful. At that point, topical or oral antibiotics would be needed to clear the infection.
Some breeds are predisposed to developing atopy, including Golden Retrievers, West Highland White Terriers, Shar Peis, Labrador Retrievers, Cairn Terriers, Shih Tzus, Boxers, Pugs and English Bulldogs. Many more can also be affected, including mixed breed dogs. No breed predilection exists in cats--allergies are an equal opportunity offender in them!
There are several options for treating atopy. Often, antihistamines are all that is needed to stave off symptoms. Pets that have concurrent ear or skin infections will need a round of antibiotics, and severely itchy cases may need a short course of oral or injectable steroids to help find relief. Topical therapies, like medicated shampoos and sprays, are also beneficial in atopy cases.
Atopy generally starts out as seasonal in nature but can progress to a year-round condition. If this happens, you may consider more aggressive diagnostics for your pet. Allergy testing can be performed with either a blood test or a skin prick test, and once we know what specific allergens are causing the problem, desensitization (allergy shots) can start. Desensitization can lessen the severity of the symptoms and in some cases can get rid of the allergies all together.
Finally, an oral medication called cyclosporine (the brand name is Atopica) is available for atopic patients. Cyclosporine helps quiet the busy immune response that leads to clinical signs. While cyclosporine is unlikely to help during an acute flare-up of signs, it can be very effective at preventing future episodes and can eventually lead to remission.
Atopy can be quite a frustrating cycle for both pet parents and vets, so having a pet insurance policy that allows you to fully pursue the best course of treatment can be extremely helpful. If your pet starts scratching more than normal this spring, don’t let it go unaddressed. Once you and your vet formulate a plan, be sure to follow it closely and let him or her know if you don’t think it’s going well. Atopy generally requires quite a few rechecks, so communication is key!