By Maura McAndrew
For millions of people, springtime means allergies—itchy eyes, runny noses, and general discomfort. Our pets are just as susceptible to environmentally triggered allergies—they just can’t tell us how they feel.
“Seasonal allergies are a huge problem in veterinary medicine,” says Dr. Judy Morgan, author and veterinarian at Clayton Veterinary Associates in Clayton, New Jersey. A wide range of allergens can trigger symptoms, adds Dr. Taylor Truitt, veterinarian with The Vet Set in Brooklyn, New York. “Trees, grasses, and pollens are the big categories, and then environmental pollutants, too,” she says. “It’s really difficult to keep environmental allergens separated from your pets.”
Because these allergies in pets are so common, there’s a good chance your dog or cat could be suffering. Here is a list of signs your pet may have seasonal allergies.
One of the most common symptoms people bring in their pets for is itchiness, Truitt says. She explains that allergies are most common in dogs, who often react by scratching or biting themselves to relieve the itching. “How I describe it to owners is…imagine having poison oak all over your body,” she says. “In really intense situations, I think that’s what some of these pets feel like. They are just scratching like crazy, and their skin is red and inflamed.” While the best thing to do if your dog is scratching or biting is take him to the vet, Truitt also notes that a bath using mild shampoo can offer temporary relief. “If the allergy is related to trees, pollen, or grass, then that can help wash these triggers off of them,” she says.
One of the more serious side effects of allergies in pets is a skin infection, which is usually related to chronic scratching. “Unlike people, who get watery eyes and runny noses [with allergies], most pets develop red, itchy skin and secondary skin infections,” Morgan says. And though it’s less common, these infections affect cats as well as dogs. “When it does occur in cats, it’s pretty darned intense,” Truitt says, “because cats will tear themselves to shreds and get these little skin lesions all over them.” Again, a trip to a veterinarian is a good idea, but in the meantime, Morgan advises cleaning your pet’s skin with witch hazel, which is “soothing and drying,” applying cool green or black tea bags to the skin, or moisturizing with coconut oil. “If the infection has a very bad odor or the pet is lethargic, lacks appetite, or is not clearing within 48 hours, a trip to the veterinarian is warranted,” she says.
Also related to allergy-induced itching and skin infection is “hair loss and increased shedding,” according to Morgan. She notes that dandruff is also a common side effect of allergies, since they can severely dry out the skin and cause it to flake. If your pet is scratching enough to prompt hair loss, it’s probably time to take them to the vet. “If your pet is really bothered by this, please talk to your vet,” Truitt stresses. “There are a lot of really good prescription medications that we can start your pet on, and we can put together a plan.”
While cats often lick their paws as a normal part of their grooming regimen, compulsive paw licking is a common sign of allergies in dogs, Truitt says. Morgan adds that “facial rubbing” is a similar behavior that’s related to histamines, or chemicals in the immune system triggered by allergies. “When dogs have allergies, they push out the histamines and they push them toward their extremities,” Truitt says, such as their ears, paws, anal region, or face.
Another symptom related to histamine reactions is scooting or licking of the anal region (again, more prominent in dogs). This type of behavior can also indicate anal gland problems, Truitt says. If your pet is scooting around on his rear end, he’s probably feeling an unpleasant itchiness. All of these histamine reactions are similar to sneezing or tearing up in humans. It can be tempting to give your pet Benadryl or other antihistamine medications to relieve his symptoms but they tend to be less effective in dogs than in people, and you should always proceed with caution. While Morgan says most dogs can take antihistamines, “always be sure to ask your veterinarian, particularly if your pet takes any other medications,” she emphasizes.
Ear infections can be a common issue in pets, particularly dog breeds with floppy ears like hounds and cocker spaniels. Oftentimes, Truitt says, “ear infections are related to allergies, especially [with] dogs that have ear infections over and over again.” Morgan agrees, noting that “head shaking” and “red, waxy ears” are the main indicators. Ear infections can be uncomfortable and even painful for pets, so Truitt stresses the importance of taking them in to see a medical professional. With any type of allergy, “it’s a complicated process, and it’s usually multi-factorial,” she says. “It can take eight to 12 weeks to see improvement if you’re having problems.” Because of the time it takes for treatment to kick in, it’s best not to put off that visit to the vet
A somewhat less prevalent symptom of allergies can be respiratory issues, which tend to affect cats more than dogs. According to Truitt, cats are more sensitive to environmental pollutants. “Poor air quality can trigger cats to have allergies, and sometimes the allergies can take the form of respiratory issues,” she says. “We call it an allergic bronchitis, more commonly referred to as feline asthma.” Signs of feline asthma should be fairly apparent to pet owners—difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing are all symptoms. While other symptoms on this list are not quite as urgent, respiratory issues need to be checked out immediately, as they can be related to more serious health problems.
If you observe any of these symptoms, our experts advise taking your pet to a veterinarian for testing and treatment. While there’s a lot veterinarians can do for pets suffering from seasonal allergies, there’s no miracle cure, Truitt emphasizes. “You have to be realistic up front…the thing about allergies is that you do not cure them, you manage them.”