What are Skin Allergies?
Ever noticed your dog scratching behind its ear frantically? Or perhaps your cat is biting his or her tail until the hair falls out? Chances are they are suffering from skin allergy – one of a variety of health problems. Liver disease, lice, fleas, fungus, mange and anxiety can all cause itching, however the leading cause of itchiness of the skin remains skin allergies.
Dogs and cats don’t get runny noses or red eyes when they suffer from skin allergies. The main symptom is itchy skin. You may also notice the following symptoms:
- Excessive licking, chewing or scratching of a particular area
- Open sores at the site of the licking and scratching
- Rubbing of the face with their paws, or rubbing against furniture or the floor
- Hair loss on the legs and around the ears and eyes (cats)
What Causes Skin Allergies?
When an animal’s immune system overreacts to certain substances – it is deemed an allergic reaction. When the trigger of the allergy enters the body, the body produces antibodies as a form of protection. These antibodies then attach themselves to immune cells (within the skin and other body tissues).
So, when the allergens eventually penetrate tissue surfaces, the antibodies stimulate the immune cells to release powerful chemicals (called histamines) into the surrounding tissue. This then causes inflammation and itching on your pet.
There are a number of factors to consider when locating the cause of a skin allergy. Allergies that affect a pet’s skin are usually caused by one (or all) of the following things: fleas, food, airborne particles, and contact with allergens.
Flea allergy or Flea Dermatitis is most commonly caused by the saliva of the flea. This is why it is so important to rid your pet of fleas regularly.
Atopic allergy is activated by breathing in airborne particles in the environment, such as mold spores, dust, tobacco smoke, and pollens, will activate atopic allergies. If a pet is allergic to pollens, it will show symptoms even if you keep it indoors as particles waft inside. Coughing, wheezing and sneezing often accompany this type of allergy.
Food allergy is the second most common type of allergy in cats and the third most common in dogs. The most likely culprits for food allergies in cats are: fish, milk, beef, and eggs. The most likely culprits for dogs are: beef, soy, chicken, milk, corn, wheat, and eggs. Vomiting and diarrhea often accompany this type of allergy.
Contact allergy is an allergic reaction caused by touching something – the least common allergy in dogs and cats. Triggers include grass, wool, and plastic. Some cats may be allergic to their litter box, and dogs may have an allergic reaction to certain chemicals in the household, but this is less common.
Diagnosing Skin Allergies
A veterinarian may be able to diagnose the problem; however it may take a process of elimination to identify the cause of the skin allergy. Your vet may refer your pet to a veterinary dermatologist. If fleas are ruled out your pet may be given ‘an elimination diet’ for 10 weeks (your pet is given foods he or she has not eaten before such as duck, venison, and potatoes with the ‘old’ food being introduced gradually).
If your animal’s itching subsides by at least half, the allergen is considered to be one or more food ingredients. To check for atopic and contact allergies, veterinary dermatologists use an intradermal allergy test where your pet is mildly sedated and small amounts of potential allergens are injected into the skin on the shaved area. If your pet is allergic to a particular substance, the skin will become inflamed at the area of the injection.
Help for Skin Allergies
Avoiding the allergens, treating the symptoms or desensitizing your pet can control skin allergies. Drugs such as steroids and antihistamines may be prescribed to relieve the symptoms of itchiness and inflammation in pets, however, like any drugs – they may come with unwanted side effects and the long-term effects are not known.
Long-term steroid use is discouraged because these drugs work by suppressing the immune system. This means that over time your pet may be left vulnerable to infection, diabetes, and other conditions.
Luckily for pet owners, there are many safe and natural herbal and homeopathic remedies for animals suffering from skin problems.
Althaea officinalis root (marshmallow) is an excellent and well-known remedy for soothing the skin – while Melaleuca alternifolia can be used externally for promoting skin health and keeping the skin clean. Homeopathic remedies such as Ledum and Apis have excellent soothing properties and are particularly useful in soothing inflamed and irritated skin, or minor stings and wounds.