Have you ever seen white dogs with rust-colored paws? Maybe you notice your dog licking their paws, particularly during the spring or summer. Does your cat have scabs in the periauricular area (that area just in front of the ears that doesnt have a lot of fur) or on their abdomen? Are you constantly battling an ear infection in your dog?
The answer to why these things are happening and what they have in common: allergies. Itching, licking, scratching, and ear and skin infections all point toward this. While some pets can have red eyes or sneezing, the vast majority show other skin or ear problems. Allergies can occur at any age, but those with atopy, a genetic predisposition to allergies, will show clinical signs at as early as six months of age.
The most common clinical sign of allergies in our pets is probably licking the paws. Animals are exposed to environmental allergies through their skin, and their paws are in constant contact with dust and pollen on the ground. The allergens can cause the allergic response. As they lick, an organic compound in the saliva called porphyrin stains the fur. Porphyrins are also found in tears, which is why many white-faced dogs have brown staining around their eyes. The moistness that occurs breaks down the barrier in the skin, allowing the normal bacteria and yeast to multiply. Yeast infections, in particular, are very itchy, so the animal continues to lick. Yeast can also cause brown staining to the toenails.
In addition to yeast, many allergic dogs will have a staphylococcus infection on their skin, often on their lower abdomen or inner thighs. Like yeast, staph organisms are normally found on the skin, but a change in the skin barrier allows them to multiply.
Another common presentation of allergies in dogs is an ear infection that just keeps coming back. Dogs can get ear infections after grooming or swimming, but those are usually one and done. If your dog is treated for an infection, especially if the diagnosis was yeast or Malassezia, and it comes back, then allergies are likely the culprit.
Some dogs will have the trifecta of allergy symptoms: paw licking; itchy, smelly, painful ears; and a bacterial skin infection. Please dont let your pet suffer with all three problems before you take him to your veterinarian. If you have a mosquito-bite sensitivity and scratch incessantly at one bite, consider that is how your dog feels all over his body.
Cats can suffer from allergies too. They dont generally lick their paws, but they may lick the fur off their abdomen or legs. Some cats develop plaquesflat areas that are red and sort of scabbed over. Ear infections can occur and, particularly with a food allergy, scabs appear right in front of the ear.
Ragweed pollen is often a cause of hay fever in humans, but what can cause an allergic reaction in our pets? Just about anything! Fleas typically cause itchiness. It can be difficult to find fleas on cats because cats are effective groomers, but that doesnt mean they dont have them. Pets with an allergy to the fleas saliva will often lose fur on the lower back and develop scabs in that area. One flea bite in a sensitive dog or cat is enough to bring on the clinical signs of allergies. Fleas can be found year-round and can quickly infest a house, so its good practice to treat your pet every month with a product recommended by your veterinarian. There are many effective products available for preventing fleas.
Food allergies are also very common. Some food manufacturers would like consumers to think every pet is allergic to grains, but that is not the case. For both cats and dogs, the top food offenders are beef and dairy. Cats can also have allergies to other proteins: fish, lamb, and chicken, followed by wheat and corn. Common allergens for dogs include: wheat, chicken, egg, lamb, and soy. It can be very difficult to find a limited-ingredient diet to try if you think your pet has a food allergy because some foods contain so many different ingredients. As foods incorporate more ingredients, allergies can develop to those items as well.
Environmental allergies, such as house dust mites and storage grain mites, are very prevalent and difficult to control. These mites are ubiquitous and present in all our homes and in food products. Pets with this type of allergy are often symptomatic year-round. Grass or pollen allergies, on the other hand, tend to cause problems only during certain seasons of the year.
What can be done for our suffering pets? First, any skin infection needs to be treated, as bacterial and yeast infections are itchy and perpetuate the problem. As in human medicine, your pet can undergo allergy testing. Testing is generally done through a blood sample. Once the allergens are known, desensitization can be done with weekly injections under the skin or daily oral drops. About 75 percent of pets respond well to the desensitization. Diet changes can be very helpful if the problem is a specific food. There are hydrolyzed protein diets, where the protein is broken down into very small particles from which the body shouldnt react, available through your veterinarian.
In the past, veterinarians often had to prescribe steroids to stop the immune response and make the dog or cat comfortable. There are better, safer medications now, with more options soon to be available, including monoclonal antibody therapy. Your pet doesnt need to suffer with allergies. Please talk with your veterinarian about what is the best therapy for your itchy pet.
Lori Scarlett, DVM , is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .