Where you live also plays a factor, says Dr. Sarah Schlesinger, a veterinarian with highly rated Weston Veterinary Clinic in Weston, Mass., explaining how a dog or cat may be allergic to a mold or pollen common in one area that’s absent in another. “I frequently see patients who are new to town and don’t have allergic symptoms for their first year, but then they will develop signs of allergies every subsequent year,” she says.
After moving just 15 miles to Roswell, Ga., from Sandy Springs, Angie’s List member Kathy McCurdy says she suspects something environmental at her new house caused her cat, Mute, to start licking the fur off his legs and belly. McCurdy took the 6-year-old American Shorthair to highly rated VCA Pets are People Too Roswell Animal Hospital where Dr. Bonnie Willhite ran a blood test and gave Mute a steroid shot to calm the itching.
“After the blood work came back normal, we tried switching his food to a low-allergen kind and started giving him oral medication, which costs $90 for a month’s supply,” McCurdy says, adding that the total cost for the exam, test, steroid shot and medication totaled $600. “After two months of no licking, we reintroduced his normal food with the medication and he was fine. So we know it’s not a food allergy. It’s nearly impossible to identify the specific cause.”
Determining exactly what your pet is allergic to can take time, trial and error, experts say. “I can’t tell just by looking at that pet if a food allergy is more likely or whether it’s a pollen or dust mite allergy,” Morris says. “The only thing that might give us a clue is if the symptoms are seasonal. But if they occur year-round, it’s anyone’s guess.” Morris says if the dog or cat has gastrointestinal problems, such as frequent diarrhea, loose stools or vomiting in conjunction with itchy skin, it’s more likely a food allergy. “But airborne allergies could also be a cause. We have to do a testing modality to sort that out,” he says, which can either be a blood screening or skin-prick test similar to what’s used on people. The only reliable way to determine a food allergy is to perform dietary restriction trials, in which the pet is fed novel food with proteins such as rabbit, venison, kangaroo or soy.
Member Sue Kent of Pahrump, Nev., says after medication failed to quell her 2-year-old mixed golden retriever’s constant scratching, she started feeding Maggie a restricted diet of raw beef, chicken and sardines. “She’s been having problems for about 10 months and we’ve been to a couple of vets,” Kent says. “They’d give her steroid injections or anti-itch medication, but after a couple of days she was back to itching.”
Kent says she asked highly rated Homestead Animal Hospital, also in Pahrump, to give Maggie an allergy test. “The blood results showed she was allergic to trees, ragweed, environmental grasses and a few foods like pork and peas,” she says. “But it’s been difficult to find food without peas as a filler.” Instead, Kent decided on a diet of specific proteins for her pet. “Maggie’s enjoying it,” she says. “She doesn’t want to go back to other food now!”
While ingredients such as grains, corn or wheat can cause allergic responses, they are much less common than protein triggers such as egg, beef, lamb or chicken, Muse says. “Food allergies are much less common than the general public is led to believe,” he says. “Pollen or environmental allergies are the most common allergy that we recognize.” Muse says oral medications help alleviate symptoms caused by airborne allergens in the short term, but testing and successful immunotherapy can safely manage environmental allergies.
In addition to environmental triggers, an allergic reaction to flea bites is also common. “I’m always astonished at clients who feel a few fleas are normal,” says Dr. Alice Jeromin, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist with highly rated Veterinary Allergy & Dermatology in Richfield, Ohio. “No fleas are ‘normal’ and always should be suspicious as the reason for your pet itching.”
In dogs, flea allergies tend to have a specific distribution pattern, with itching on the back and around the tail and rear legs. With cats, allergy symptoms tend to look identical, regardless of the source. “Flea allergy in cats is the most common cause of licking and scratching, but in many cases you can’t find fleas,” says Dr. Glen Burkett, board-certified veterinary dermatologist at highly rated Animal Dermatology and Allergy in Estero, Fla. “That is because the cat will lick them off quickly.”