Dog allergies often kick into overdrive as things begin to bloom in the spring and our pets can be at risk, too. It’s not just plants that cause allergies. Dust, new foods, or even their favorite human can set off sneezing and itching in a dog.
Finding the culprit isn’t always easy, nor is deciding on a treatment plan, so Fitdog sat down with veterinarian Dr. Nelson Weiss of VCA Dog & Cat Hospital in Santa Monica to find out how to best alleviate your pet’s discomfort.
Fitdog: What are the most common environmental allergens for pets in California?
Dr. Nelson Weiss: Virtually any plant, grass, or flower can be the source of allergies in cats and dogs. There are too many environmental allergens to list, but a few examples are western ragweed, Russian thistle, Bermuda grass, dust mites, palm trees, and orange trees. As embarrassing as it may be, our pets might even be allergic to the human dander of their owner.
FD: What symptoms should pet owners look for? Are there any particular behaviors that indicate allergies?
Dr. Weiss: Unlike people who often manifest allergies with upper respiratory signs, dogs and cats usually exhibit their symptoms via their skin. You might observe your pet itching or see redness, hair loss, chewing skin or feet, face rubbing. Also watch for head shaking in dogs and cats, because allergies might cause ear infections. If any of these signs are observed, bring your pet in for examination and treatment.
FD: Is there an easy way to tell the difference between a food vs. flea vs. environmental allergy?
Dr. Weiss: It can be difficult to tell the difference, because all three might have a similar appearance but there are some subtle distinctions. Flea allergy dermatitis is extremely common year-round in Southern California, and a single fleabite might cause an allergic animal to itch excessively. Often the affected area is centered on their rump with noticeable hair loss and redness. It is important to check this area with a flea comb on a regular basis.
Environmental allergies may be seasonal. We might observe symptoms in our pets at the same time every year. Also, you might suspect a contact environmental allergy, for example, if you notice a skin flare-up every time your dog rolls in the same grassy area.
A food allergy might include similar symptoms, such as a skin flare-up, but it might also be accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea. You might ask, ‘Was there a recent diet change?’
FD: Can you test a dog for allergies as you do with people?
Dr. Weiss: Yes, there are two types of allergy tests for dogs. One is performed on the skin and the other is a blood test. I recommend this course of testing and long-term treatment for dogs with severe environmental allergies, but it is not effective for flea or food allergies. These tests are performed to determine the most common allergens so they can be incorporated into a customized injectable serum (allergen-specific immunotherapy). It is administered at dosages designed to gradually reduce your pet’s sensitivity to allergens.
FD: What is the common treatment plan for environmental allergies in dogs? Do you recommend Benadryl?
Dr. Weiss: Symptomatic treatment depends on the severity of the allergic flare-up and consists of corticosteroids and antibiotics in either a topical or oral formulation. Benadryl and Claritin are over-the-counter antihistamines that should be administered under the guidance of your veterinarian to customize their dosage. Other medications include essential fatty acids, prescription shampoos, cyclosporine, or Apoquel. We reserve allergen-specific immunotherapy treatment for the dogs that have severe and frequent flare-ups.
Clipping the hair also may also speed up the recovery process. And then there’s the least popular treatment amongst dogs: The dreaded e-collar, or cone collar, is actually effective in preventing self-trauma until excessive itching and biting are under control.
FD: What at-home remedies or prevention tips do you recommend? Tea tree oil? Shaving the fur down? Medicated baths?
Dr. Weiss: Tea tree oil in its most concentrated form is toxic if ingested or applied topically, so I don’t think it’s worth the risk. Shaving definitely can be of benefit but I have seen too many ‘grooming accidents’ requiring surgery so this is best performed at a veterinary clinic. Medicated baths, pet wipes, and paw washing are great at keeping allergies under control, but, to be most effective, these treatments must be tailored to the individual needs of each patient.
FD: Which allergy drugs SHOULD NOT be given to dogs?
Dr. Weiss: Avoid giving your dog anything containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. Also, keep in mind that topical products we use on ourselves will likely be ingested if applied on our pets after they groom themselves. If you have any doubt about using a medication, prescription or not, contact your veterinarian. A great resource for substances that are toxic to animals is The ASPCA Poison Control Center. They can be reached at (888) 426-4435.