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Pet Allergies: What to Know About Itching, Scratching, & Licking

Seasonal pet allergies! What are they, and how can you help your pet feel better as the Central Oregon pollen flies this Spring? Veterinary Referral Center dermatologist, Dr. Jennifer Bentley, says the chronic, relapsing inflammatory skin disease that can be the source of all that scratching, and licking is known as atopic dermatitis. A “strange disease,” it is both confusing to diagnose and tricky to treat. Fear not, though. While atopic dermatitis doesn’t go away, there are treatment options that can ease the itch for your dog or cat.

Watch "Seasonal Allergies and Atopic Dermatitis" Discussion

What Causes Seasonal Pet Allergies?

While not all dogs and cats itching is triggered by environmental allergies, VRC has definitely seen a rise in cases of atopic dermatitis. Dr. Bentley says there are a number of factors that can make your pet vulnerable, including:

  • Genetics
  • Your pet’s skin microbiome, or a problem with skin flora
  • Skin barrier dysfunction

Skin barrier dysfunction demonstrates an outside/inside hypothesis, whereby allergens “break through” the skin to activate the immune system and cause inflammation. Atopic dermatitis can present differently in each dog or cat, which is why it’s hard to diagnose. Some pets experience irritation in the ears, others the paws or the groin area.

Too Clean for Comfort

A risk factor for environmental pet allergies—a condition that may lead to your cat or dog’s itchy skin—is an overly sterile environment. Exposure to different things may actually strengthen your pet’s resistance to skin problems due to seasonal allergies. Atopic dermatitis may be more prevalent in pets that have limited or no exposure to forested areas or live in an urban environment. White dogs may be particularly vulnerable.

Treatment for Seasonal Pet Allergies

Atopic dermatitis is a progressive disease, and it doesn’t go away. Over time, your pet’s skin can become blackened and thick. The following are the four primary drugs used to treat skin disease in pets:

  • Prednisone
  • Cyclosporin
  • Apoquel
  • Cytopoint

Choosing the treatment that’s right for your pet is the tricky part. Prednisone is a steroidal medication that reduce inflammation, and is relatively inexpensive. Apoquel is an oral medication. Cytopoint is injected, and can be costly, with positive results in about 70% of dogs who take it. Dogs and cats respond individually to different drugs and treatments. It can be frustrating, but trial and error is the only real way to know which treatment will work best for your pet.

While it’s tempting to try to treat your pet’s allergies yourself, Dr. Bentley cautions against trying to treat your cat or dog’s itch with human go-to’s such as Benadryl. Over-the-counter antihistamines rarely work for dogs and cats.

Allergy-Specific Immunotherapy

Drugs, in any case, are a band-aid, says Dr. Bentley. The only treatment that can actually prevent the progression of the disease is allergy-specific immunotherapy. The most common goal of this treatment, however, is to decrease the use of other medications over time. While some pets may respond so positively they are able to stop all other medications completely, a very positive and more realistic goal is to decrease the use of other drugs by fifty percent. At VRC, up to eighty to ninety percent of dogs being treated with allergy-specific immunotherapy are responding enough to back off other medication.

Read more facts and myths about environmental pet allergies on our blog, and talk to your vet about treatment options for seasonal allergies in your dog or cat.