Do all of these emerging grasses, pollens and tree buds have your nose in a tickle? Most likely, seasonal allergies are to blame, and just like humans, our pets can have reactions to this springtime environment. Most allergens are proteins from plants, insects, animals, or foods, many of which occur year-round (think: molds, mildew, and house dust mites). However, other inhalant allergens are seasonal, including ragweed, grass pollens and tree pollens (cedar, ash, oak, etc.). The good news is there is relief for your furry friend this spring!

In general, an allergy is a state of over-reactivity or hypersensitivity of the immune system to a particular substance called an allergen. Normally, the immune system protects the animal against infection and disease, but with allergies, the immune response can actually be harmful to the body. Allergies may be thought of as an unnecessary normal immune response to a benign foreign substance.

“Allergies are quite common in pets of all breeds and backgrounds,” explains Dr. Brown, Harmony’s Medical Director. Most allergies appear after the pet is six months of age, with the majority of affected pets being over age one or two. In both dogs and cats, the most common symptom associated with allergies is itching of the skin, either localized (in one area) or generalized (all over the body). In some cases, the symptoms involve the respiratory system, with coughing, sneezing, and/or wheezing. Sometimes, there may be runny discharge from the eyes or nose. In other cases, the allergic symptoms affect the digestive system resulting in vomiting and diarrhea.

Says Dr. Brown, “In most dogs and cats, inhalant allergies manifest primarily with itchy skin. The pet may rub its face, lick its feet or scratch its underarms.” Affected pets will often react to several allergens and often experience concurrent flea or food allergies. If the offending allergens can be identified by skin testing or blood tests, the pet should be protected from exposure to them as much as possible. However, because most of these allergens are environmental, this is difficult and recurrent bouts are likely. Symptoms can be controlled but a permanent cure is not usually possible.

Treatment Options

Treatment for spring allergies may involve one or more of the following three therapies:

  • Anti-inflammatory therapy. Treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids or antihistamines will quickly block the allergic reaction in most cases. Fatty acid supplementation of the diet can improve the response to steroids and antihistamines in some cases. Newer alternatives also exist to block specific chemical signals associated with itch, including daily oral medications and long-acting injections.
  • Shampoo therapy (dogs). Frequent bathing with a hypoallergenic shampoo can be soothing to itchy, inflamed skin. Bathing also rinses out allergens in and on the coat that can be absorbed through the skin. Some therapeutic shampoos also contain anti-inflammatory ingredients that may further benefit your pet.
  • Hyposensitization or desensitization therapy. If the specific offending antigens are identified by allergy testing, an allergy injection serum or allergy shots can be given to the patient. With this treatment, very small amounts of the antigen are injected weekly. This repeated dosing has the objective of reprogramming or desensitizing the immune system. Success rates vary with this treatment. Approximately 50% of treated dogs will see significant improvement in their clinical signs, while approximately 25% more will see a decrease in the amount or frequency or corticosteroid usage.

The Power of Distilled Water

One other simple suggestion to reduce allergies, keeping them under control for both pets experiencing symptoms and for people who are allergic to pets, is to dampen a cloth with distilled water and wipe down your pet’s coat daily (or even every few days). The distilled water will attract and pick up the allergens from your pets coat, lessening the allergen load they shed into the environment. This is also good to do if your pet’s paws get reactive to spring grass, Simply wipe them down with a little distilled water each time they come in from outside! Cat owners who are slightly reactive to their cat’s fur will also appreciate this simple solution, and the cat really does become accustomed to it.

The symptoms of allergies can be confused with other disorders, or occur concurrently with them. Therefore, do not attempt to diagnose your pet without veterinary professional assistance. Be prepared for your furry friend to receive a full diagnostic evaluation to rule out other causes of itching and skin problems. If an allergy is diagnosed, your whole family must follow your veterinarian’s advice very closely in order to successfully relieve your pet’s discomfort.