While springtime was beautiful, the cool, wet weather during that season led to misery for many human and animal allergy sufferers. Yes, dogs can have allergies! They just feel them in a different way than people. For humans, inhaled pollen and other antigens like dust and mold spores can wreak havoc on the respiratory system. Watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing and asthma are the most common forms of distress that humans experience. In our canine family members, the part of the body affected most by allergy is the skin, not the respiratory system. The primary sign of allergy for dogs is itching – especially on the feet, face and rear end. The skin tends to turn pink and become irritated in these regions.
When animals react to an allergen, whether it is an inhaled piece of dust, mold spore, pollen grain, or ingested food protein, the skin reacts in a predictable way. The fighting immune cells in the skin and mucus membranes are the body’s first defense to foreign proteins. These cells start an immune cascade that can be normal and beneficial, or it can be hypersensitive and lead to an allergic reaction. All of the medications used to combat allergies focus on stopping the inflammation cascade started by the reaction to foreign proteins.
The secondary problems that occur in allergic pets are all tied to the reaction of the skin. When affected by an allergy, the skin performs all of its normal functions in a hyperactive way. The skin cells turn over faster, which leads to flakiness in the dog’s coat. The oil glands produce more oil and the chemical makeup of the skin oils is altered, giving the coat a different feel. The ears make more wax, creating an environment ideal for breeding yeast and bacterial infections. The anal glands become hyperactive and produce more fluid, which is irritating to the animal. The skin immunity itself is so altered that secondary bacterial infections causing rashes are more common. All of these changes make life miserable for allergic animals.
As many dog owners know, fleas are also a common cause of itching. For those pets that have Flea Allergic Dermatitis (FAD), the bite of a flea feels like a direct injection of allergen. Flea prevention is crucial for skin health in these pets.
The most common medications for fighting allergies are antihistamines. These drugs work by interrupting the release of histamine from the cells in the skin. Cortisone can be effective in treating allergies, but has very broad anti-inflammatory effects and therefore decreases all the immune function of the body. This sweeping process can cause numerous unwanted side effects.
Apoquel is an exciting new therapy for dogs with itchy skin that works better than most antihistamines without the side effects of the powerful corticosteroids. This drug neutralizes a specific enzyme in the cell that is responsible for the inflammatory response at the most basic level. It is an extremely popular new medication, but it has very limited availability.
Controlling allergies in a pet can involve different therapies and combinations of medications and bathing. Talk to a veterinarian to design the best course of treatment for helping your furrier family member stay allergy-free.
Originally published July 2014 in the Lake Norman Citizen