Scratching Beneath the Surface of Allergic Skin Disease
Posted March 08, 2019
Spring is coming, and it’s bringing allergy season with it.
While you may suffer from all of the excess pollen in the air, your
pets may also be affected by seasonal allergies, or they could be
allergic to a more permanent feature of their environment.
There are several causes of allergic skin disease in pets,
including biting insects, diet, and environmental factors. If the
allergies tend to get worse during certain times of the year,
external parasites, biting insects, or environmental factors tend
to be the more likely culprits.
Dr. Alison Diesel, a clinical associate professor in dermatology
at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine &
Biomedical Sciences, has advice for pet owners who may be noticing
some extra itching from their dog or cat.
“The most common cause of allergic skin disease worldwide is
fleas,” Diesel said. “The saliva that is injected when a flea bites
can cause an allergic reaction in sensitive dogs and cats.”
Diesel said it is common for pets to be allergic to
environmental factors such as mold, dust (as well as the associated
dust mites), or pollens from weeds, grasses, and trees.
“A common misconception is that dogs and cats can have allergies
to things like cleaners or laundry detergents,” she added. “This is
something that is essentially never seen.”
While itching is the main indicator of allergic skin disease,
Diesel said to watch for more than just scratching, because biting,
licking, rubbing, rolling, head shaking, and scooting can also
indicate that a pet is feeling itchy. Cats also may show excessive
grooming behaviors, which can result in bald patches and
“It is important to remember that other things, such as
infections and parasites, can also cause the same symptoms,” Diesel
said. “These first need to be investigated before jumping on the
allergy train. Contact your pet’s veterinarian to help determine
what may be causing the itch observed.”
A veterinarian can also help determine if the amount of itching
is normal or excessive. Diesel said the Texas A&M Small Animal
Hospital uses a scale of one to 10 to help rate a pet’s itching
“If the animal’s scratching is disrupting their normal behavior,
their sleeping habits, or their owner’s sleeping habits, this is
considered to be too much itching,” she said.
More extreme signs of itching—such as hair loss, red skin,
scratch marks, and rashes—also indicate that the pet is itching
more than a normal amount.
Once the cause of the allergy is determined, treatment can
begin. Diesel said that flea prevention is the first step for any
pet with allergic skin disease.
“Even when fleas are not seen, this is very important,” she
said. “Even a small amount of flea saliva that is injected into a
sensitive patient can cause a massive allergic response.”
She said other treatments include medications, special shampoos,
topical products, dietary changes, and allergy immunotherapy, which
involves giving the pet allergy injections or oral drops. The
severity of the itch, duration of the itching, and other health
conditions will determine which treatment is the best choice.
Diesel also said that some human antihistamine medications can
be given to pets, but a veterinarian should always be consulted
first. Pet dosages are very different from human dosages, and some
decongestant medications may be toxic.
Some veterinarians, like Diesel, specialize in allergic skin
disease. If your primary veterinarian cannot stop the itching, a
veterinary dermatologist may be able to do further testing and
prescribe different treatment options.
Pets deserve to spend each day as comfortable as possible, free
from itching and pain. Now that spring is almost here, make sure
you watch out for any of the symptoms of allergic skin disease in
your dog or cat.
Pet Talk is a service of the Texas A&M College of
Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Stories can be
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