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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

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Skin and ear conditions, caused by pet allergies, are probably the most treated condition in pets, especially in the Western part of the United States. Without veterinary confirmation, most owners attribute these conditions to the food they are feeding to their pets and seek foods with novel proteins (venison, duck, lamb etc.) to feed their pets instead.

Unfortunately is this not only a mistaken response, it also means that veterinarians will have limited ability to treat "real" food allergies in the future.

Facts About Allergies

Most skin and ear allergic conditions are a response to airborne pollens and not food (85-98 percent, depending on whose research is quoted). I know it seems strange, but when allergic animals breathe in pollens, their immune system recognizes the pollen proteins as "foreign." White blood cells and antibodies respond to these invaders by increasing the body’s histamine levels. For pets, elevated histamine levels cause itching, so the animals lick and bite at their skin. Paws foot pads, arm and leg pits, abdomens, and the back of the hind legs are favorite targets. Purple staining of the fur, raised sores on legs, infections between the toes, infected "hot spots" on long haired breeds, and chronic ear "infections" are all symptoms of pollen allergies.

Black, rough, "elephant looking" skin (pachydermatitis) is another classic symptom of pollen allergies. Cats will often exhibit tiny crusts and sores on their bodies called "military dermatitis." "Acne" on the chin or a puffy lower lip called "rodent ulcer" can also be signs of an allergic response to pollens in cats.

Only two patterns of skin symptoms are thought to be characteristic of food allergies. Chronic ear "infections" with red or pachydermatitis rectums (ears and rears) in dogs, and violent facial scratching in cats are suggestive of food allergies. This is not to say that food allergies are not a part of the allergic complex in any pet, but they are probably minor. Pollens are the major culprit.

Pollen allergies are difficult to determine. Expensive blood and/or skin tests are necessary. Treatment generally includes injections to desensitize the pet to the offensive pollen proteins or the use of other expensive drugs. Owners tend to balk at the expense and commitment of this approach. It is often much easier for them to blame the food and experiment with novel proteins. And often this solution is met with initial success, but then fails as time passes because food proteins are not the primary allergens.

The Problem With Treating Allergies

Allergies develop over time due to repeated exposure to offensive proteins. Immediate allergic reactions to pollens and food are rare. Allergic reactions to vaccinations, bee stings, and certain plant residues are exceptions and can occur on first exposure. Since food allergies occur over time, veterinarians treat this condition by recommending proteins that, up to now, were seldom present in most commercial pet foods.

Lamb and rice, salmon, bison, rabbit, venison, and duck with potato were standards for food allergies (novel proteins). Unfortunately owner misunderstanding of allergies resulted in greater demand for foods with these novel proteins, and pet food manufacturers gladly responded. Now, premium foods feature novel proteins as regular ingredients. One brand offers lamb, duck, and venison in the same food! More and more pets are being exposed to novel proteins and will become sensitized to them, and veterinarians will be forced to seek even more exotic proteins for our food allergy patients. We may have to resort to recipes that contain ostrich and emu, kangaroo and wallaby, horse and zebra, guinea pigs and other pocket pets, large snakes, or other wild species the general public may find offensive as food sources, who will then boycott their use or will find them to be too expensive and will be unlikely to purchase them.

The Take Home

Unless your pet has a confirmed food allergy, stick to a food with the more common proteins like beef, chicken, turkey, etc. Do what is necessary to identify the exact source of your pet’s allergies. Reserve the novel proteins in case your pet develops a true food allergy and your veterinarian needs to control the diet. Grain free fits in this same category, which I will address in the next blog.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Shmel / via Shutterstock

Comments  9

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  • Another Example
    08/02/2012 07:15am

    This is another example of humans attempting to diagnose and treat their critters without the benefit of a veterinarian.

    It just makes sense that most critter allergies are due to pollens, dust, etc. After all, that's what causes most people to have allergic symptoms.

  • Here We Go Again!!!
    08/02/2012 08:28am

    I have a 3yr old Frenchie that my vet determined through process of elimination has bad allergies. Her first occurrence was Aug 2011. Yeast infections in the ears and licking and chewing paws. Spots on her body losing patches of cracked peeling skin with strands of fur. She began to look like she was used for target practice. She was put on a prescription diet but I was told he felt it was environmental. She was tested by process of elimination, (starting with the lowest costing on up), while being treated with weekly baths of Aloe Oatmeal shampoo with cool water, 1 AllerG-3 pill daily and 2 Atrax capsules daily.
    She was tested for parasites, 2 types of mange, thyroid, fungus and a few others. Altogether her testing and meds cost me close to $2000.00. After 1 or 2 hard frosts, she began to clear like magic and her sores went away and fur grew back. I'd like to mention she had also gotten dog flu and was put on strong antibiotics, very expensive which really knocked her down for a few days and frightened heck out of me. What ever was left of the allergy "thing", was completely gone.
    Here I am first wk of Aug 2012 and they are coming back! I haven't allergy tested her because the vet advised it will cost over $500. I am feeling this is my only course of action at this point. Is there an allergy pill stronger then the Atrax that would keep this at bay? Currently she only has 3-4 spots, I have her on the AllerG-3 and have started her weekly baths. Plus every spot that appears I have been dotting with neosporen which does seem to heal it up quick. Or is testing and desensitizing the only route?

  • 08/03/2012 01:39am

    try the nuvet wafers it all natural supplment to help skin problems like allgies. my boxer suffers with seasonal skin problems as well my boxer would lick her paws like there is no tomorrow and she would rub her chin on the carpet all the time and her feet had that frito smell whitch means she had an infection going on because of her yeasty feet. i to had her on all kinds of meds and nothing work except the prednizone whitch i did not like because it only mask the problems and not getting rid of the problem from the inside of the body. and it made her gain weight and made her bloated and my boxer was not happy be ing that. here is the number 1-800-474-7044 ask for deb disney at ext. 239 thay are located in Agoura California and you can also go to the web www.nuvet.com to research on the product. and my name is Lisa Friedman i would like to send u a free sample if i could . let me know.

  • 08/02/2012 08:56am

    ""Acne" on the chin or a puffy lower lip called "rodent ulcer" can also be signs of an allergic response to pollens in cats."

    Cool - I just thought my cat had managed to give herself a fat lip (she scratches her nose up trying to get into things all the time). I've had the AC on constantly for weeks but we're having ridiculous mold spore levels right now where I live, I bet that's what's bothering her.

  • CAMG
    08/02/2012 10:34pm

    The "hard frosts" are a definite sign that the problem is environmental allergens and not food. I am not sure what "process of elimination" based on costs means with regards to environmental allergies. Testing, blood or intra-dermal, are the only methods of diagnosis. Systematic treatment only identifies what works and doesn't work for the symptoms not identifying the cause. Antihistamines, like hydroxyzine (Atarax), shampoos etc. are adjuncts to allergy treatment and not primary treatments. Testing, desensitization, treatment with Cyclosporin are more targeted to the actual cause of the allergic reaction. And yes the diagnosis and treatment of allergies is expensive. Unfortunately, $2,000 is just a start. Proper long term treatment of allergies is one of the most expensive conditions in veterinary medicine. That is why so many pet owners elect long term prednisone and antibiotic therapy. It is much cheaper, instantly effective and the most harmful for the pet. Many choose quality over quantity of life given the expense of this condition. I am glad you understand that food is not the issue. Good luck.
    Dr. T

  • 08/03/2012 08:24am

    Dr T, Thank you for your time replying to my comment. The love for my Frenchie is is up there with the love of my people children :) I will get the $$ together for allergy testing if really necessary and start her on shots.
    One good thing the vet advised when she is tested the lab provides print outs of essentially all allergies she has including any food allergies. There will be a listing of "exactly", what she has to be kept away from or can't eat. In the case of food allergies a listing of store bought food safe for her and where they can be purchased. I would also be taught to give her the injections :( I love her with all my heart and would do anything for her. Thank you again.
    PS.. My youngest human baby is in her 7th yr, majors in microbiology, pathibiology/parisitology and is doing her research and thesis work at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia PA. Wishing so much she could take her furry sister in as a "perk" to be treated :))) Maybe someday!
    Kind Regards!

  • Foster pup
    08/03/2012 07:40am

    This ia a timely article for me.We currently have a pup that was found in our town and we are trying to find him a home.He was going to be taken to Metro in Nashville which kills anything that looks like a Pitbull.

    Sparky came to us about 6-7 months old and had some patches of hair missing on his back and back legs.He is an itchy boy.I thought it might be related to poor nutrition,but after 6 weeks of high quality food he is still itchy(although the hair is growing back).We cannot afford testing for him as we have 3 of our own and we have gotten him neutered,all his shots and had him microchipped.

    We treat our 15 year old dogs mast cell condition with Benadryl. I have given Sparky some and it helps with the itch.Is this an okay treatment for such a young dog? Here in the Nashville area we have lots of allergens in the air and a short winter.Thanks for the article!

  • 08/03/2012 10:15pm

    3dognight,
    There is no down side to using antihistamines like Benadryl for allergies any any age group. The side effects are minimal and not harmful to body organs. If they are effective than they can be used for the lifetime of the animal without harm. Please know that the effectiveness of any particular antihistamine can change. Here in California we start with Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton (chlopeniramine)but generally have to "graduate" to Atarax (hydroxyzine),Zrytec (cetirizine) or Claritin (loratadine) for better control. Every patient is different and it is a trial and error method of treatment. But please relax about the extended use of antihistamines.
    Dr. T

  • CAMG
    08/03/2012 10:00pm

    Thank you for your kind words. You are exactly the type of client that makes veterinary practice rewarding. You understand the problem and appreciate the diagnostic and treatment choices and "work with your veterinarian" for the best possible outcome. Good Luck. Do remember that allergy testing is still subject to a large margin of error and trial and error is still an essential part of allergy diagnosis. The key is to be a very objective observer and give your veterinarian accurate information. Congratulations on your daughter's successful career.
    Dr. T

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