Pet Environmental Allergy Signs, Symptoms & Treatment Options

General Information:

Anything in your pet’s environment can serve as an ‘allergen’. Pollens, weeds, grasses and molds are some of the more common outdoor allergens. Indoor allergens such as dust, dust mites or ‘storage’ mites (found in leaf litter, grains, dry dog food, etc) are also common.

No one knows exactly what causes one pet to be allergic versus another. It is believed that genetics play a big role. Pets develop allergies most likely because something in their genes makes them predisposed.

Substances that your dog comes into contact with everyday may trigger and cause allergies.  Pollens, grasses, trees, dust, etc. are all unavoidable.  Typically, the body encounters these things and has a neutral response. However, an allergic dog’s immune system perceives these pollens, grasses, etc. to be a threat and uses its defenses to try and protect the body from them. This causes inflammation which results in red, itchy skin.

The nature of any type of allergy is to have a period of initial exposure where the body sorts through what it encounters and then through a long series of steps decides to become ‘tolerant’ or ‘allergic’. When allergic patients re-encounter that allergen this will result in more inflammation. This is why allergies can be such a vicious cycle or roller coaster because patients are constantly coming in contact with things in their world which cause their skin to become inflamed and itchy.

Most often dogs are allergic to multiple allergens. Some pets itch only in certain seasons of the year while others itch all year round. In some cases the itch may have started out to be only certain times of the year but can progress to becoming a year round problem.

The most common allergies in dogs are environmental including fleas and food.  The symptoms of dogs who are allergic to the environment and food are exactly the same. Sometimes the history is helpful in determining the cause but often we need to use process of elimination to really know what the reason is for your dog’s skin problems. Also, up to 25% of dogs with environmental allergies will also have a food allergy at the same time.

Treatment Options:

There are a variety of treatment options for environmental allergies but fall into one of two basic types.

  1. Blood or skin allergy testing is used to help us learn what your pet is allergic to. The reason for this type of testing is to determine allergy vaccines for your pet.  It is usually not practical to do the allergy testing with the goal of keeping your pet away from identified allergens. The most common allergens (dust, dust mites, pollens, etc) are unavoidable in most cases.
    Allergy shots are safe, well tolerated and effective for the management of allergies. They have no side effects that limit the quality or length of your pet’s life. They are the only form of treatment which treat the disease itself. The goal of allergy vaccines is to expose your pet to what they are allergic to in a very controlled, methodical way. So your pet will still encounter pollen and weeds, etc but when treatment is successful they are now able to ‘tolerate’them. Allergy shots may be used alone or with other medications to help control your pet’s allergies.
  1. There are a variety of medications to treat the symptoms of your pet’s allergies. These do not change how the body sees the allergen but how the body responds to the inflammation. This includes treatments such as steroids, anti-histamines and other anti-inflammatory medications such as Cyclosporine (Atopica). Within this group some medications are very safe for long term use while long term steroid use carries potentially serious side effects and should be a last resort only. Patients often have a variable response to any drugs in this category and often multiple medications need to be used to find the right balance.

Household modification:

Pets who are allergic to dust or dust mites do not develop these allergies because their environments are dirty. These things are normal in small amounts and cannot be completely eliminated from homes. For people with similar allergies, who have eliminated carpeting or upholstered surfaces, there has not been a true benefit shown. Use of air filters or cleaners have not been proven to be helpful, either, but are benign. Routine vacuuming with a HEPA filter may be helpful. Keep in mind though your pet has an allergy or is hypersensitive to even the smallest amounts of their allergen. It is usually not realistic to be able to totally stop their exposure to these allergens.

In this part of the country mold allergens are extremely common. The molds which are identified as allergens most often are indoor/outdoor molds which are found nearly everywhere. Even in new homes without basements which are kept very clean mold can be a problem. Remember they are also found outside so essentially any dog living in the Northeast has some mold exposure.

Flea/Tick Control:

It is common for pets that have allergies to have more than one type.  For this reason we do recommend using routine flea control in pets with environmental allergies as many of these will develop flea allergy dermatitis if exposed to fleas.

Quest for the Cure:

Allergies are a chronic condition, much like diabetes in people, which requires continued care and management. So, while your pet will carry their allergies throughout life there are many different choices for how to find a way for your pet to live in harmony with them. Usually this does not mean that your pet’s symptoms disappear. The goal is to find a way of controlling your pet’s symptoms so that they do not disrupt their daily activities and quality of life, which is not the same as a dog who never itches!