That Unscratchable Itch: Atopy in Pets

feral dog scratchingItchy pets are not an uncommon sight in the veterinary hospital, and this time of year Prairie Ridge Veterinary Clinic is fully of them. There are many reasons a pet might be suffering from itchy skin, however atopic dermatitis is one of the most common dermatologic problems that we see. Learn all about atopy in pets and what can be done to get your furry family friend comfortable again.

Understanding Atopy in Pets

Atopic dermatitis is a genetic predisposition to developing a sensitivity to environmental allergens like dust, mold, grasses, and pollens. It develops due to a defect in the protective barrier of the skin, allowing these types of particles to gain access to the immune system, stimulating the body to develop sensitivity. Histamines are released (the same compounds that cause a reaction to a mosquito bite), and the whole itching and inflammation cycle begins.  

Atopy in pets is one of the most common causes for seasonal skin problems and, besides flea allergy, is the most common cause of allergies in dogs.

Because atopy has a genetic component, certain breeds are more commonly affected with the problem. Golden retrievers, Bichon Frises, Bulldogs, and the terrier group seem to suffer from atopic dermatitis most often, although any breed can be affected. Most pets begin to show signs of atopy between a year and three years of age. Common symptoms include:

  • Scratching
  • Head shaking
  • Biting or licking areas obsessively
  • Reddened skin
  • Bumps or crusts on the skin
  • A bad odor

The ears, armpits, face, paws, and underbelly are the most commonly affected areas as they are most prone to coming in contact with environmental allergens. Symptoms may be seasonal or year round, depending on which particular sensitivities a pet has.

Unfortunately, if we suspect that your pet may be atopic, there is not a single test that can diagnose him or her. Instead, we must make a diagnosis based on your pet’s symptoms and history and by ruling out other common causes of itchy skin. These include flea allergies, parasites such as skin mites, food allergies, and infection.

Skin or blood allergy testing may be done to confirm the diagnosis and identify which allergens your pet is sensitive to. It is not unusual for atopic pets to be reactive to multiple allergens.

Helping Itchy Pets

Atopy in pets can be a very frustrating problem as it tends to be chronic and there is no absolute cure. Thankfully, however, we know more than ever about helping these itchy pets and most of them are able to be successfully managed.

Most pets with atopic dermatitis need a combination of therapies in order to remain comfortable. It is often a process to find the right combination for each individual pet. We may try to treat your itchy animal with:

Avoidance – If you could avoid exposing your pet to the things that he or she is allergic to, obviously that would be ideal. Unfortunately, most allergens are unavoidable, although some such as dust and flea saliva allergies can be somewhat controlled.

Topical therapies – Because the skin is to blame for the root cause of atopy, topical therapies can be very helpful. Physically removing allergens from the skin through bathing and washing can be effective for some pets. Topical steroid sprays and creams can also have a place in treatment. Most recently, new shampoos, creams, and mousse formulations that help to replace the defective barrier layer in the skin are also becoming available to help our atopic pets.

Nutritional supplements – Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, such as those contained in fish oil, can be extremely helpful to help maintain healthy skin and decrease inflammation. A good quality supplement with high concentrations of EPA and DHA is most effective.

Antihistamines – Some pets respond well to oral antihistamines such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine). Certain antihistamines are more effective than others for certain animals. Never administer any medication without running it by us first to be sure that you have safe and effective dosing information.

Immune modulating medications – Medications that dampen the immune system can bring much relief to many pets. Traditionally, steroids have been most commonly used. While very effective, though, steroids do have the potential for causing serious side effects. Other medications such as Atopica (cyclosporine) and Apoquel (oclacitinib) have more recently become available for pets who need an alternative to steroid therapy.

Allergen specific immunotherapy (ASIT) –Specially formulated allergy injections based on allergy testing can be developed for an individual patient in order to help build a tolerance to the things that trigger the immune system most.

Atopy can be a frustrating condition. All pets respond to treatment differently and there is no universal way that works best for every patient. Thankfully, your friendly veterinary staff at Prairie Ridge Veterinary Clinic is here to work with you and your pet in order to develop a personalized treatment plan that works best for you.