Dealing with Atopic (Allergic) Pets
Things you can try at home....
Living in a mid-Western state has certain advantages. We don't have the opportunity to become bored with the weather, because it's always changing. We have beautiful, warm summers; gorgeous, colorful autumns; dazzling white winters; and mild, welcoming springs. We also have mosquitoes, wood ticks, and a huge variety of allergens.
Oh, and a plethora of labrador and golden retrievers, who are genetically prone to allergies. I could have made a living off of treating nothing but allergic dogs, I swear!
"So, dogs get hay fever?" you are thinking to yourself. The short answer is yes, they do, but....
Allergic dogs and cats usually don't present with itchy eyes and runny noses. Well, okay, sometimes the skin around their eyes is itchy, but it really doesn't look like the hay fever people get at all. Instead, they tend to have itchy skin, especially on their feet and faces, and may also be prone to skin and ear infections as well as anal sac impactions. If your dog is doing that funny thing where it sits down and drags its rump along the ground, weeellllll....It may have allergies.
WHAT ARE THEY ALLERGIC TO?
Anything and everything. Dogs and cats can be allergic to all the same things people are allergic to--pollens, molds, dust mites, other animal dander, even human dander! Yes, your pet may well be allergic to you! How ironic is that?!
Animals can also suffer from food allergies. Typically (but not always) pets with food allergies will not only be itchy, they will also have digestive problems that come and go, like vomiting, diarrhea, or excessive gas.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
Animals (and probably people, too) have what is known as an "allergy tolerance threshold". That means that they are usually allergic to a whole bunch of things, but if you take some of them away, the rest aren't enough of a problem to make them itch. Or at least they will be less itchy.
Your veterinarian has many options available now for treating allergies. Antihistamines, steroids, immune suppressants, hyposensitization injections, allergy testing, medicated shampoos, medicated sprays, it's all out there. However, given these tough economic times, I can understand why you may not be able to pursue the ideal option of consulting your vet. So, as long as you are convinced that your pet does not have an infection on top of the allergy, here are some things you can try:
1) Salmon oil capsules. You can generally find these in the 'people' vitamin department of most grocery or department stores. I recommend 1,000 mg twice a day for a 60 to 70 pound dog. The omega fatty acid in salmon oil has been shown to change the inflammatory response of the skin, so even though the immune system is screaming, "Hey, we've got an allergy here!!" the skin is ignoring it. Be patient, and stick with this for a month before you decide whether or not it's helping.
2) "Novel protein" foods. When it comes to food allergies, researchers say that it takes 6 to 24 months for the body to become allergic to a new ingredient. So, go to a pet food store (NOT a grocery store!) and talk to a knowledgeable staff member. What you are looking for is a diet with a small ingredient list that does NOT contain the common things (beef, chicken, corn, wheat). Some of the options available at present are salmon and oatmeal; duck and pea; or venison and potato. Choose one, and keep your pet on just this diet, NOTHING ELSE, NOT EVEN TREATS OR FLAVORED VITAMINS, for at least 6 weeks. If your pet does have a food allergy, you should notice a decrease in symptoms (less itchiness, less vomiting/diarrhea, fewer ear infections) by the end of 6 weeks.
3.) Antihistamines. Yes, your dog can take Benadryl (diphenhydramine) at a dose of 1 mg per pound (Which would be two 25 mg tablets for a 50 pound dog. I know, it sounds like a lot, but trust me, it works). MAKE SURE THERE IS NOTHING BUT DIPHENHYDRAMINE IN THE TABLETS YOU BUY!!!! Some formulations (such as Benadryl Sinus) add Tylenol (acetominophen) to the antihistamine; if you dose for the Benadryl, you will give your dog enough Tylenol to kill it. You may also be able to get suggestions/doses for different antihistamines from your veterinarian; often you can buy larger tablets (i.e. 50 mg Benadryl instead of the 25 mg available for people) from your vet and save yourself some money.
4.) Medicated shampoos. Baths actually help in a number of ways. For one, they physically remove allergens from your pet's skin. The cool water relieves some itching, as well. Shampoos that contain oatmeal, tar, or sulfur can also decrease allergy symptoms. These shampoos work best if they are allowed to stay on the pet for 5 to 10 minutes, after which you need to rinse them very thoroughly (dry shampoo is itchy!). You may want to talk to your vet about how often to bathe your pet so you don't over-do it and dry their skin out. Frequency of bathing depends on the amount of oil your pet produces and the type of shampoo you are using, so you will need to talk to someone who knows your pet in order to get a good answer to this question.
5.) Reduce the number of allergens in your home. There are some great products out there, intended for use by people with allergies, that will help with this. There is a powder that you can put on your carpeting to combat dust mite allergens, and spray cleaners that break down other allergens, including pet dander. Frequent vacuuming with a HEPA filter in place is useful, and don't forget that allergens can stick to all flat surfaces, even bare walls!
6.) Make absolutely sure that fleas aren't contributing to the problem! If a dog or cat has a flea allergy, one single bite can make them itch themselves bald for WEEKS! Even if you aren't seeing fleas in the house, they may be lurking, or your pet may be getting bitten while it is outside. I like to use a topical product (like Frontline or Advantage) that is applied to the pet once a month. These two products in particular get into the oil that coats the hair, so that as the pet sheds, the flea 'poison' is spread around the house. These two products are very, very safe for people and pets, as well, which is why I like to use them. It is also wise to treat the home with an area spray, but frankly, the subject of fleas really deserves its own post.
There are some things, like yeast infections, bacterial infections, mange, or even skin cancer that can start out looking just like allergies. If at all possible, your best bet is always to consult a veterinarian FIRST. If your vet determines that your pet has uncomplicated atopy (the professional term for allergies), give these recommendations a try to see if they help.
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