Hi everyone! Today I want to address the most common appointments I see at my animal hospital- skin conditions from allergies.  At least 75% of my patients will visit me at some point in their lives for itching, scratching, licking, hair loss, redness, scabbing, and ear infections, including my own dog, Dory! So why is my pet so itchy, and please can you do something to relieve his or her discomfort so we can get some sleep?  Unlike humans who present with runny noses, coughing, sneezing or red watery eyes when allergies attack, our pets’ allergies result in generalized itching, skin infections, and ear infections.

The most common pet allergies are:

  • Food Allergies
  • Flea Allergies
  • Atopy (allergies to environmental allergens such as pollens, grasses, or soils)

How do I know if my pet has allergies, and what treatment options are there?

The first step is to work with your veterinarian to first determine if your pet is suffering from allergies and if so, the cause of the allergic reaction.  A food allergy requires placing your pet on a prescription hypoallergenic diet.  If your pet is allergic to fleas, veterinarians can prescribe flea preventatives that are very effective and most importantly, safe for your pets.  Environmental allergies to things such as pollen, grasses or soils are more difficult to treat, but I am excited about some of the new treatment options as discussed below. The second step is to have your veterinarian determine the type of infection your pet has for proper treatment.  Many times your veterinarian will recommend skin scrapes, skin cytology, cultures, or bloodwork to assess the type of infection and treat accordingly.

Once my pet has been diagnosed with allergies and an infection, what can we do to help an itchy pet from suffering?

It is important to allow your veterinarian assess and make a treatment plan for your pet’s allergy.  There are many treatments available, and every pet is unique.  Treatment regimens need to be prescribed by your veterinarian.  Here is my top list for treatment of allergies and associated skin infections:

  • Weekly medicated shampoos prescribed by your veterinarian – I love Veterinary Formula Clinical Care Hypoallergenic Shampoo and recommend it for my pets all the time.  Many shampoos can be harsh and cause allergic reactions, especially with pets that are already predisposed to allergies.  This shampoo has the gentlest coconut-based cleansers and no harsh ingredients, dyes and fragrances so it will not irritate sensitive skin. It also contains vitamin E (Stimulates capillaries to promote blood circulation and, in turn, promotes strong and healthy hair growth), lactic acid (an alpha-hydroxy acid, naturally exfoliates, buffers and conditions skin), and allotoin (a moisturizing ingredient used to treat or prevent skin from becoming dry, itchy, scaly, rough or irritated). Veterinary Formula Clinical Care Hypoallergenic shampoo is paraben-free, will not remove topical spot-on flea & tick treatments and is dye free.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids supplementation
  • Antibiotics
  • Antifungals
  • Antihistamines
  • Proper and effective flea and tick preventatives
  • Immuno-suppressants
  • Hypoallergenic vaccinations
  • Steroids
  • Immunotherapy
  • Referral to veterinarian dermatologist

I am hearing of some new treatment options for pets suffering with allergies.  What are these options and can they help my pet?

I am so excited for all the wonderful and exciting new treatment options for pets suffering with allergies and severe itchy skin, a condition that has proven extremely difficult to treat. Immunotherapy to treat pets suffering from allergies and itchy skin is changing the way we have treated allergies in the past, and is much safer with less side effects and more positive results. Immunotherapy consists of a substance given to pets that stimulates an immune response targeting specific environmental allergies in your pets.  So how do these new treatments help our pets?

  • Apoquel is a pill for taken orally that uses AK1 & JAK3 inhibitors for treating itching in dogs.  Of course you ask, what are AK1 & JAK3 inhibitors?  Our immune systems, and our pets’ immune systems, create a group of molecules (proteins, glycoproteins, and peptides) called cytokines. Cytokines help stimulate the movement of cells towards sites of inflammation, infection and trauma.  Specific cytokines are released by the immune system to create itchiness, which is the body’s way of fighting certain types of allergies, and notifying you that something is wrong.  Apoquel restrains or prevents the release of certain cytokines, but only the cytokines that play a significant role in inflammation and itching caused by allergies.  This is the first drug that is able to target only the specific immune response that creates itching!  The recommended dose is 2 times per day for the first 2 weeks and reduced to 1 time per day to control itching.  My goal, for any medication, is to keep pets on the lowest dose possible.
  • CAD is a monthly injection for use in dogs which contains an antibody that targets and neutralizes interleukin-31.  But of course, what in the world is interleukin (IL)-31?!  Our cells, and those of our pets make interleukins.  Interleukins send signals to the brain to tell our bodies things like, “this is hot,” “my skin is itching,” “this tastes horrible,” “my back hurts,” etc.  Scientists have found a specific interleukin, interleukin-31, that is only found in dogs who have allergies caused by the environment (flowers, soils, pollens, etc.).  Interleukin-31 tells the brain, “I am itching.”  The amazing scientists have created an antibody to isolate and attack interleukin-31, and prevent signaling to the brain, “I am itching.” So, what is so exciting about this treatment? It uses the body’s natural immune response (antibodies attacking foreign particles) to combat itching.  The treatment simply interrupts the cycle of itching and inflammation in dogs that have environmental allergies. The treatment consists of a monthly injection administered by your veterinarian, or by yourself at home if you are comfortable.

I love learning and utilizing treatment options in my practice that help ease suffering in pets.  These newer therapies are replacing older treatment options for pets with allergies, such as steroids that can be harmful on the body with long term use.  Unfortunately, controlling common allergies and itching in our pets is very difficult and frustrating for me as a veterinarian, but more so for my patients and their parents.  As I tell my clients and cannot stress enough, allergies in pets are not curable, but only manageable.  I am always excited when new research and treatment options are available to us and our pets, which are proven to be safe and helpful.  As always, my number one goal is to make sure our pets are happy and healthy.  I hope this article brings some insight into treatment options for your pet as well as some newer, safer options for our itching pets! If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian.  They are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets, and can determine if your pet is a candidate for these great new treatment options.

About Dr. Alison Birken

My name is Dr. Alison Birken and I am a small animal veterinarian, wife, mother of three, and a sister to my three siblings. I graduated veterinary school from The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2006, and completed a year internship in small animal medicine at Florida Veterinary Specialist in Tampa, Florida. I have been practicing small animal medicine for 11 years and over the past 6 years have dedicated my life to building and operating an animal hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, accomplishing a lifelong goal of mine. In addition, along with my sisters (Katie, a pediatrician and Carrie, a fashion stylist), I am a co-founder of Forever Freckled (www.foreverfreckled.com), a website dedicated to helping people with pets, children, and everyday lifestyle. It has been an incredible journey turning my passion for animals into a career and nothing brings me more joy than to help pets and their parents with wellness and healthy living. For wellness and health tips for pets, and other lifestyle advice, please follow our journey on www.foreverfreckled.com.

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