Spring is here! It’s time welcome longer days, warmer weather and the beauty of nature in the Carolinas. This change of season can also be the start of misery for many human and animal allergy sufferers. Yes, dogs can have allergies! They feel them differently than we do, but they can just as frustrating if left untreated.

For humans, breathing pollen and other antigens such as dust and mold spores can wreak havoc on our respiratory system. Runny noses, difficulty breathing, sneezing, and asthma are the most common forms of allergy distress we experience. Allergies cause our furry friends to have a different type of misery. The skin, not the respiratory system, is the part of your dog’s body which is most affected by allergies. The primary misery for our canine companions suffering from allergies is itching! Lots of itching, especially on a dog’s feet, face and rear.

When animals react to an allergen, whether it’s an inhaled piece of dust or mold spore, direct contact with pollen or ragweed, or ingested food, the skin reacts in a very predictable way. The immune cells in a canine’s skin and mucus membranes are the body’s first line of defense. These cells prepare to fight with an immune cascade that can be beneficial. Or it can lead an allergic reaction. All of the medications used to combat allergies primarily focus on stopping the inflammation cascade started by the reaction to foreign allergens.

Other problems dogs face when fighting allergies are tied to our pet’s skin and it’s reactions. When affected by an allergy, a dog’s 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 painful 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 a dog with allergies.

Fleas are also a common cause of itching for dogs. For pets with Flea Allergic Dermatitis (FAD), the bite of a single flea feels like a direct injection of allergen. Flea prevention is crucial for skin and overall 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.

There are several newer therapies for dogs with itchy skin that work better than most antihistamines, without the side effects of the powerful corticosteroids. One newer drug that has proved to be extremely effective fighting canine allergies actually neutralizes the specific enzyme in a cell that is responsible for the inflammatory response at the most basic level. It is an extremely popular new medication, but can have limited availability.

Controlling allergies in a pet can involve different therapies and combinations of medications and bathing, so be vigilant. Now is definitely the time of the year to talk to your veterinarian about the best course of treatment for helping your furry family member stay allergy-free and happy this spring and summer.

Dr. Donna Warren is a veterinarian with LakeCross Veterinary in Huntersville. The vets in the big yellow house have been treating pets like family for 20 years. For more information, call 704-948-6300.