Off the leash

The way I gauge if the allergens are out isn’t how warm it is, how much grass I can see, or if the trees have started budding. I gauge it by how much it feels like my contacts have a layer of sand under them each morning. I’m not alone in this issue, as I start to see my schedule fill up with itchy pets and goopy eyes.

The season change means a lot of different things, but it means a huge uptick in allergies in our pets (and ourselves!) Today I’ll talk about allergies in general, and not just seasonal allergies. Though I’ll start with them and they certainly come to mind right now, allergies are complicated. Pets can have a little bit of many types of allergies, and the seasonal change can tip them from fine to uncomfortable.


Seasonal allergies in pets are similar to those in people. The pollens in grasses, trees, and weeds stimulate pets’ immune systems. In pets, we can still see sneezing, watery itchy eyes, and runny noses. However, the most common symptom by far is actually itching! Itching in pets shows up as scratching, licking their toes, and chewing their skin. This often leads to sores.

Once the skin barrier is broken, bacteria move in and make it even itchier. This creates a vicious cycle of chewing and skin sores that can seem to go on forever. We typically take a look at a sample from the skin under a microscope to make sure the pet doesn’t have any mites. We also look for yeast and bacteria so that we know how to treat each case appropriately. It is very important to stop the itch cycle as quickly as possible. This way not only is your pet more comfortable, but they are less likely to have severe infections secondary to skin issues.


Food allergies in pets can present either in itching or in vomiting/diarrhea. Skin issues are actually far more common with food allergies than gastrointestinal upset. In dogs, we often see persistent ear infections and anal gland issues. In cats, we see generalized skin itching and tearing fur out.

If we suspect a food allergy, I always like to start pets on a controlled diet. The risk of switching their food 25 times in search of a perfect blend is that they may be getting a lot of different protein sources in an uncontrolled manner. This will actually make it harder to diagnose a food allergy going forward. It will also make it harder to find food that does work for the long term.

We can often track these down because your pet will start having issues a week or two after a food switch. If your pet has issued only in the spring and fall, we’re not likely to jump to a food issue. When we have food allergies we see skin issues throughout the year. They may still get worse when we add on seasonal allergies, but they will never be completely resolved even in the dead of winter.


Pets can also get autoimmune skin issues, which happens not uncommon in dogs. Just like rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease, the body develops allergies to itself. The body then mounts an immune response against the skin, so the dog consistently feels itchy. These dogs need to be managed on long-term immuno-suppressants, so we like to check for everything else first.


This is closely related to seasonal allergies, but there are also things in the environment that aren’t just seasonal. Pets can be allergic to dust mites, couch stuffing, and even other pets!


The best way to test for allergies is the same as in people, intradermal. This is when a dermatologist puts a small number of allergens in a grid on your skin and measures the response.

We also can do a blood test to measure amounts of response to environmental allergens. This works pretty well for everything except foods. It is easier because a general practitioner can do it in their office.


The first thing that we do is give medication to stop the itch, treat any fleas or mites and treat any secondary infections. If allergies are persistent, we recommend figuring out what the pet is actually allergic to. We then treat these allergens with “allergy shots”. This is just like the shots in people. We inject small amounts of the allergens to allow the pet to slowly build an appropriate immune response. The concentration of these increases until a pet has decreased sensitivity. Ultimately these shots work very well to decrease the itch level in our pets.

As always, the important thing is to seek treatment early on. The longer your pet goes being uncomfortable and itchy, the harder it is to ultimately control.

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