If your dog is scratching themselves silly, or your cat has gone from beautiful to bedraggled, they may need more than a bath and brush. Changes to your pet’s skin and coat may be an environmental, dietary, or parasitic allergic reaction.  

Beauty is more than skin deep, and so are pet’s allergies. Read our Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital pet allergy guide to determine why your pet is scratching incessantly, and how you can help relieve their suffering. 

Pets’ and humans’ allergy signs are different 

To cope during allergy season, humans bring out the tissues, nasal spray, and antihistamines, but dogs and cats take a “tooth and nail” approach—biting and scratching—for relief. You experience most allergic reactions through your upper respiratory tract, but your pet experiences allergies through persistent skin irritation. To alleviate this discomfort, pets scratch, bite, and lick—sometimes so intensely that they pull out their hair, break the skin, or cause a secondary bacterial infection.

Defining and recognizing pet allergic reactions

Pets can experience a hypersensitivity (i.e., allergic) reaction to any substance their immune system has determined a threat, responding by releasing histamine—a skin inflammation and pruritus (i.e., itching)-causing hormone, which rarely affects pets’ nasal passages and upper airway, as in humans. Food allergies may trigger gastrointestinal signs, such as vomiting or diarrhea. 

You should suspect your pet has allergies if their signs include: 

  • Persistent skin scratching, biting, or licking
  • Hair thinning or loss
  • Red or irritated skin
  • Skin scabs, sores, or hives 
  • Facial swelling
  • Unusual odor
  • Chronic ear infections
  • Frequent facial rubbing or pawing
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Sneezing or coughing
  • Eye discharge

Pets’ common allergy causes

While suspecting allergies is easy, confirming the diagnosis is often much more complex. At your pet’s visit, the Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital team will ask you specific questions about your pet’s itching or allergy signs, including:

  • When did the itching begin? — Sudden-onset behavior at certain times during the year suggests seasonal allergies or a hypersensitivity reaction.
  • Have you changed anything in the home? — If you have recently changed your pet’s diet, shampoo, or their bed’s laundry detergent, they may be reacting to a specific, new ingredient. 
  • Has your pet recently been groomed? — Bathing, clipping, and drying can be hard on your pet’s skin, and they may react to new shampoos and sprays that contain artificial fragrances or harsh chemicals.

Our veterinarian will perform a thorough examination to look for visible allergy causes (e.g., parasites), secondary trauma, or infection. Based on our veterinarian’s findings, and your pet’s history, and testing results, our veterinarian should be able to narrow your pet’s allergies to a specific category. Pets’ most common allergies include:

  • Environmental allergies — Pets may be allergic to indoor or outdoor allergens,  including dust, mold, mildew, grasses, weeds, and tree pollen. Seasonal allergies intensify during spring and summer, while dust, mold, and mildew allergies are present year-round. Pet’s environmental allergies typically emerge at a young age—between 6 months and 3 years.
  • Food allergies — Pets more often have a protein sensitivity (e.g., chicken, beef, lamb, soy) rather than grain sensitivity. Dairy products are another common allergen, and fish may affect cats, especially. Food allergies can develop at any age. 
  • Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) — Some pets experience an intense allergic response to a protein in flea saliva. One flea bite can trigger sudden-onset scratching—driving some pets to pull out their hair, especially over the tail base where fleas especially like to bite.

Addressing your pet’s allergy

No treatments can cure allergies, but your veterinarian can help you manage your pet’s allergy signs through diligent care. Your veterinarian will tailor your pet’s allergy treatment to their specific needs, and will typically address the problem from several angles, including:

  • Pain relief and antibiotic therapy — Alleviating your pet’s inflammation, irritation, and infection is always your veterinarian’s priority. Depending on the severity of your pet’s allergic reaction, your veterinarian may use strong short-term medication (e.g., steroids) or a longer-acting allergy medication that blocks the brain’s signal to scratch.
  • Exposure management — If your pet’s allergen is avoidable (e.g., a protein), your veterinarian may prescribe a food trial, during which your pet eats one food type for four to six weeks. If the trial is successful (i.e., your pet stops scratching), your veterinarian will gradually reintroduce ingredients until they identify the allergen. To protect your pet from outdoor allergens, limit their time outdoors to reduce exposure, place them in boots to protect their feet from the grass, and wipe down their coat before they return indoors. Year-round flea prevention helps flea-allergic pets avoid misery.
  • Controlling flare-ups — Treatments (e.g., shampoos, conditioning sprays, short-term medications) may address your pet’s sudden allergic flare-ups.
  • Desensitization — For unavoidable allergens (e.g., dust, mold, some pollens), your regular veterinarian may refer your pet to a veterinary dermatologist for advanced testing to determine whether your pet should receive immunotherapy (i.e., allergy shots). Over time, these injections may reduce the severity of your pet’s reactions.  

Patience and consistency are the most important care components for your allergic pet’s relief. A lot of trial and error goes into identifying your pet’s allergens and finding the appropriate treatment combination, but we know that your pet’s comfort and your peace of mind are a worthwhile investment.

Is your pet scratching incessantly? They may have allergies. Contact your Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital veterinarian to help your pet get allergy relief.