New Solutions for Pet Allergies

Veternarians have options for pets struggling with allergies.

Do you suffer from allergies? You might not be alone: Your pet may be suffering, too.

When pets suffer, they are at least as miserable as we are -- and maybe more. Instead of the runny noses, itchy eyes, sneezing or wheezing allergies mean to many people, pet allergies typically show up as scratching, chewing, rubbing, head-shaking or diarrhea.

Allergies are common for dogs: According to the pet-health insurance company VPI, the top three medical claims for dogs last year were allergy-related. Cats get off relatively easy on this one, since far fewer cats suffer from allergies than dogs do. In 2009, VPI's most common canine claims were for infections of the outer ear (4.45 percent), allergic dermatitis (4.22 percent) and pyoderma, commonly known as "hot spots" (2.72 percent). For those cats who are allergic, they can show skin reactions, but also respiratory symptoms, vomiting and other digestive problems.

Allergies typically show up within the first 1-3 years of a pet's life, worsen with age and can't be cured, only controlled. Knowing what causes the allergies is an important first step toward treating them, and that means getting your veterinarian's help. Flea bites are the top cause of pet allergies, but food and environmental issues are a problem for many pets. Dust, pollen and spores in the home and yard gather in pets' fur, and the allergens then trigger painful and potentially life-threatening reactions.

Your veterinarian will have suggestions specific to your pet, your region and your season, but in general, you can help your pet a great deal with an allergy-prevention regimen in the home. Dedicated parasite control is first step, and that will mean veterinary-recommended flea-control products along with frequent vacuuming of pet areas and washing of pet bedding.

Concurrently, you can limit the amount of dust and other irritants pets sweep up in their coats by vacuuming and using electrostatic cleaning products (such as Swiffers) on floor surfaces as well as using room or whole house filtration systems. And while you may have heard that frequent shampooing strips the skin of essential oils, veterinary dermatologists now recommend bathing pets at least every week (up to everyday for extremely at-risk, allergic pets) during the spring and summer to help wash allergens off the coat and skin before they can be absorbed and trigger an allergic reaction. Spray-on products or wipes for a dry bath will often do the trick and may be a great deal easier than bathing for some dogs and almost all cats.

While regular flea-control, a clean house and frequent bathing may dramatically decrease your pet's allergic response, often more powerful treatments are needed to help a pet ditch the itch. Fortunately, veterinarians have new medication options that may make a world of difference.

You probably know someone who takes shots to manage their own allergy symptoms. Known as immunotherapy, or hyposensitization, these small injections of allergens under the skin can also be effective for most dogs with atopic dermatitis, which is the medical term for what pet owners would call "constantly itchy skin"). Pet owners can administer the injections at home with guidance from their veterinarians. Over time, this treatment may allow a pet to handle natural exposure to the allergens -- 75 percent of pets respond well over time to immunotherapy.

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