Itchiness—is it allergy related?

The general differentials for itchiness include allergies, infection, and parasites. This article will focus on allergies as the cause of the clinical signs of itchiness.  Allergies can be divided into two categories: food related or environmental related. Environmental allergies can be further broken down into seasonal or year-round.

Allergies in non-human animals usually manifest as excessive itchiness, persistent skin and ear infections, and sometimes gastro-intestinal signs. It is important that your pet be on monthly flea and tick prevention to rule out a possible parasitic component to the clinical signs of itch.  Once you have established that your pet is increasingly itchy, an appointment should be made with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will be able to evaluate your pet’s skin for signs of infection and parasites.

Sometimes pets can become allergic to the proteins in the food that they are eating, although this is thought to be a less common form of allergy compared to a flea allergy or environmental allergies. The younger the dog or cat, the more likely it is that food may be playing a role. However, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist will be able to better direct you on ways to determine if there is a dietary component to the clinical signs observed.

Even when food has been ruled-out as a primary cause for the itchiness, there is evidence that switching to a limited ingredient diet may have the effect or decreasing recrudescence of signs of itch due to other factors (i.e. fleas or environmental allergens).  Once it is determined that your pet may be allergic to allergens in the environment, your veterinarian will come up with a plan to address clinical signs or definitively find out which allergen(s) your pet is allergic to.  The latter strategy usually requires a consultation with a board-certified veterinary dermatologist.

When your pet walks outside and inhales or comes in contact with allergens, this creates inflammation; this inflammation then causes the clinical signs of itch. Additionally, inflammation also predisposes the development of skin and ear infections. When trying to assuage clinical signs of allergic itch caused by the environment, you are left with three options: 1) removing your pet from the environment, 2) desensitizing them to the allergens, or 3) controlling the inflammation that the allergens are causing.

Desensitizing your pet to allergens in the environment requires allergy-skin testing, done with a veterinary dermatologist. Blood tests to determine environmental allergen sensitivity are not reliable.  Once you consult with your veterinarian, they will set expectations and determine if skin testing is suitable for your pet or if another treatment approach may be more viable.  While picking up and leaving an environment solely to help decreased you pet’s possible allergen exposure is likely not feasible, if considered, a definitive allergen profile should be established, in order to ensure the new area is free of the inciting allergens. In some cases, owners move for other reasons and as an unattended, but pleasant consequence, realize that their pet’s itchiness has reduced or subsided.

Allergies and dermatological issues make up most sick visits at primary care facilities, and as such, there has been a tremendous amount of research on the subject.  Thankfully, there are a myriad of options, some newer than others, available for the control of inflammation that allergens cause.  Make an appointment today and talk to your veterinarian to see what options are best suitable to your pet’s needs.

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