There are many causes of allergic skin disease in pets, ranging from food allergies to allergies to substances like washing powders, but by far and away the most common cause of allergies affecting the skin in pets is atopy. Atopy is the technical term for allergies caused by inhaled allergens such as pollens, and in pets these allergies usually manifest themselves as skin problems such as itchiness, irritation and excessive chewing, especially of the feet.
The origins of atopy are usually complex but there is certainly a strong genetic link as certain breeds such as Westies are particularly predisposed to this condition and suffer from particularly severe symptoms. In some cases the symptoms can be so severe that they can have a major impact on the quality of life of the pet – and in exceptional cases can even lead to animals being put to sleep, although this is thankfully very rare.
Diagnosing allergic skin disease is generally fairly straightforward and based on the clinical symptoms which typically include chewing and licking of the feet and groin, increased itchiness, and sometimes bald patches and areas of red and inflamed skin. There are other possible causes for these symptoms but allergies related to inhaled allergens would be at the top of most vet’s lists and is the diagnosis they would look to confirm and treat first.
In some mild cases vets will simply treat the symptoms on suspicion using anti-inflammatory drugs and supplements (usually containing omega 3 oils) but if this doesn’t work or if the symptoms are more serious, further diagnostic tests are often used. These can include blood tests to look for anti-bodies to specific allergens, and skin tests where tiny amounts of different pollens are injected into the skin and the reaction measured. Blood tests can provide a quick and relatively cheap way of diagnosing skin allergies, but they are not always as reliable as other tests and not all vets are convinced by the value of these tests. Skin tests are generally seen as more accurate but they are more involved, usually requiring the animal to be sent to a skin specialist to have them carried out.
Once a diagnosis is made there are then many treatment options to consider. The ideal way to treat any allergy is to eliminate the allergens causing the problem from the pet’s environment, but in most cases this is impractical – for example, if your dog is allergic to house dust mites or grass pollen, there is no way you can significantly reduce his exposure to these allergens. With exclusion being very hard or impossible, most cases are managed with a combination of medical therapies. These can include anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids and cyclosporine (Atopica) as well as nutritional supplements including omega 3 oils and oat groats. These can all work well, but drugs such as steroids can have long term side effects, and cyclosporine is only variably effective as well as being expensive. The final option is tackling the allergy itself using so-called de-sensitising vaccinations. These are formulated specifically for individual animals and work by gradually getting the body used to the allergens causing the problems by injecting them in increasing doses under the skin. It can work well but is expensive and by no means guaranteed to cure the problem.
In conclusion, skin allergies are a major problem for our pets, particularly dogs, and treating them is never easy and usually involves a combination of approaches including medical therapy and supplements. If you’re worried about your dog’s skin, consult your vet for advice – and consider trying Vet’s Kitchen Healthy Skin omega 3 supplement as a first step in reducing itchiness and improving skin condition.