Cat Allergies and Diagnosing Them
Cat allergies usually refer to the unpleasant reaction caused by human sensitivity to the presence of a cat in the household. As a matter of fact about 10% of the US population has an allergic reaction to pets, and cats are the number one culprit. However, we will restrict this dialogue strictly to the allergies that are present in our pet cats.
An allergic reaction is an unpleasant side effect caused by the cat's immune system. The absence of an immune system prevents our feline friends from building up resistance to viruses, bacteria, foreign proteins and other irritants that get into his system. In the allergic cat, certain foods, or substances such as powders,pollens,feathers,house dust,wool and insect bites, trigger a reaction identified by itching and sometimes sneezing, coughing, swelling of the eyelids, tearing, or vomiting and diarrhea.
In order for a cat to be allergic to something in his surroundings, he needs to be exposed to it at least twice. What he is exposed to, is called the allergen. The way in which his body responds is called the allergic reaction.
The two kinds of allergic reactions in cats are the immediated type, and the delayed reaction. The immediate type occurs shortly after exposure and produces hives and itching. Hives in the cat are characterized by sudden swelling of the head, usually around the eyes and mouth, and occasionally the appearance of welts elsewhere on the body. The delayed reaction produces itching which occurs hours or days afterwards. Flea allergy dermatitis is an example of both types. This explains why a cat continues to itch even after a successful flea-dipping.
Allergens enter the body through the lungs (ex:pollens and house dust); the digestive tract (ex: eating certain foods); by injection (ex: insect bites and vaccination); or by direct absorption through the skin. In human beings the target area is usually the lungs (producing hay fever and asthma). In the cat, it is usually the skin or gastrointestinal tract. Severe itching is the main sign of skin involvement.
Cat allergies fall into three major categories: food allergies, flea allergy dermatitis and Irritant contact and allergic contact dermatitis.
Cats can become allergic to certain foods, or substances in these foods. Fish, cheese and milk are the most common food allergens. An intensely itching skin usually develops, and it be accompanied by sneezing, swelling of the eyelids and a runny nose. You might begin to observe hair loss or oozing sores from constant scratching. Diarrhea is present in about half of the cases. The diagnosis is made by exposing the cat to a suspected alergen and seeing how he reacts to it.
Flea Allergy Dermatitis
This skin disease is caused by an allergic reaction to flea saliva. The affected cat breaks out along the back and around the neck with small crusts and bumps. These are the spots where fleas are most commonly found. As the cat licks and scratches frantically, he sometimes produces raw patches of skin which become infected. Lick ulcers may also develop. Flea allergy Dermatitis is the most common seasonal allergy of cats. Symptoms are most prevalent in the middle of summer, however a sensitized cat might be itching all year round. Fleas can not live at elevations above 5000 feet and are therefore not found at these higher elevations.
The diagnosis is made by seeing the characteristic skin rash and by finding fleas on your cat. You can check your cat for fleas by standing him over a sheet of white paper and brushing the coat. Black and white grains of sandy material which drop on the paper are flea eggs and feces.
Irritant Contact and Allergic Contact Dermatitis
Both of these conditions are caused by contact with a chemical. Any cat coming in contact with an irritating chemical will develop a skin reaction, however only cats allergic to a substance show a skin response. A cat does not break out with an allergic contact dermatitis until he has been exposed to the allergen repeatedly. Both irritant and allergic contact dermatitis affect parts of the body where hair is thin or absent. (ex: feet, chin, nose, abdomen, groin). These areas are also the most likely to come into contact with chemicals. Liquid irritants may affect any part of the body. A contact dermatitis of either type produces red itchy bumps along with inflammation of the skin. Scaliness follows, and the hair falls out. Excessive scratching causes skin injury and infected sores. The rash of an allergic contact dermatitis may spread beyond the area of contact.
Chemicals that produce irritant dermatitis are detergents, solvents, soaps and petroleum by-products. Common substances causing an allergic reaction are flea powders, shampoos, poison ivy, poison oak, plastic and rubber dishes, and dyes found in carpets.
Flea collar dermatitis is a reaction to the insecticide in the collar. It affects the skin around the neck, producing local itching and redness, followed by hair loss and crust formation. This condition may spread to other areas.
Litter box dermatitis affects the skin around the tail and anus.
Cat allergies are not always easy to diagnose, and in some severe cases professional help should be brought in
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References: The Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook by Delbert G. Carlson, D.V.M and James M. Giffin, M.D. - First Edition
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