ANIMAL BYTES: It’s Summertime

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By Stephanie Oba, DVM
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on July 14, 2011)

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Summer allergy season is here! Depending on what’s in bloom, each year brings on new challenges. This year promises to be no different.

What causes allergies?

The immune system is supposed to react to foreign invaders in the body. However, with an allergy, the immune system overresponds to foreign particles by kicking into overdrive. The result is an overproduction of histamine that causes itching, swelling and inflammation.

Playful Moxie loves to roll in the grass, where she’s very likely to pick up fleas and ticks, or discover an allergy. (Courtesy of S. Oba)

What are the symptoms of allergies in pets?

Observe your pets. You’ll find that itching is the most common symptom. A dog will bite, chew and lick at one area. Or, it may be generalized over the entire body. Look for reddened skin, scabs, crusts, or wet, weepy wounds called “hot spots.”

Cats may just appear to be grooming more than normal.

Check for scabs on their body from inflammation and secondary skin infection.  Or ear infections. Other symptoms include head shaking, pawing at the head and odor and discharge from the ears. There may even be gastrointestinal signs like vomiting or diarrhea.

What can pets be allergic to?

The most common allergy comes from the bite of a flea. The result can be as mild as an uncomfortable,  itchy pet or severe with hot spots. In this area, fleas are a problem during all months of the year.

Our winters are only cold enough to slow down fleas. When we use these preventatives directed at warmer months, we allow the eggs, larvae and pupae to build up during the fall and winter. As the weather warms, these immature life forms emerge, causing a large unwanted infestation.

Fleas are only the tip of the iceberg. Pets can be allergic to almost everything that people are allergic to. Inhaled allergies to the environment — grasses, weeds and molds — are pretty common.

Contact allergies to plastics and laundry detergents may occur.

Naturally, foods can cause allergic reactions. Pets are usually allergic to the protein particles; however, there is an emergence of celiac-like disease in pets recently.

How are allergies diagnosed?

Unfortunately, there is no one test for allergies. The diagnosis is usually one of exclusion. We test for everything else that can cause similar lesions and determine if they are all negative.

Alternatively, we treat for the other problems correctly, but the symptoms may remain.

Many times we do a diagnostic trial. This means that we treat the symptoms and see if they improve. If the underlying cause is an allergy, the pet should get better, at least temporarily.

Can we treat allergies?

We can manage the symptoms, but curing a pet of this problem usually does not happen. Avoidance is the best medicine, but it is not always practical. The most common way veterinarians manage allergies is with steroids and antihistamines.

Steroids work by suppressing an overactive immune system. Antihistamines lower the amount of histamine that the immune system recruits. There is no “one size fits all” protocol for all pets. There is a lot of trial and error to see which antihistamine works best.

Supplements, such as fatty acids, also help by decreasing the amount of inflammation in the body. For food allergies, switching to special diets is necessary. They are extremely hard to manage because most pet owners love to give pets treats.

With food allergies, treats have to be scrutinized closely to make sure they aren’t the trigger for the allergy. Certain cases may benefit from allergy testing and hyposensitization injections. In these tests, common allergens are tested to see if they trigger an allergic response and how severe it is.

Individualized serums are then made specific to each pet, followed by a protocol of injections schedule.

The goal of this treatment is to retrain the body’s immune system to not over react to these proteins. I have seen these injections work well; however, it’s a long-term treatment, lasting years and possibly life-long.

In severe cases, a board-certified dermatologist may be needed to control the allergies, and secondary infections that arise from these allergies. They pack a larger arsenal of diagnostics and treatments against allergies to help your pet cope.

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Stephanie Oba is a contributing writer and physician for animals in  Alhambra. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

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