It seems that everywhere you look, food allergies are being blamed for a variety of vague symptoms. But food allergies (more correctly termed Adverse Food Reactions) account for only about 5-15% of allergic dogs and cats. And true anaphylactic food allergies are very rare in pets. So, does your itchy pet have a food allergy? Maybe. But more likely, they have environmental allergies or Atopic Dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis is a common cause of chronic itching, caused by an inappropriate immune reaction to one or more substances in the environment.
The symptoms usually start when a pet is young, between 1 and 5 years, and certain breeds tend to be predisposed (like labradors, pitbulls, doodles, and shih tzus). The best way to control symptoms is to limit exposure to the offending substance, but that isn’t usually practical. Luckily, we have more and more options for treatment.
Some pets respond to antihistamines, but these are generally less effective in pets than people. Topical therapy with medicated shampoos, mousses, and sprays are used frequently. Just like in people, allergy testing helps determine what substances bother a pet and an extract is made to be given by injection or orally, to desensitize them. There are also anti-inflammatory and anti-itch medications that are useful in most pets.
The newest therapy is a monoclonal antibody injection, that works with the body’s immune system to remove the protein that signals itch. So far, this has proven quite effective when given every 4-8 weeks.
Pets with atopic dermatitis are very prone to recurrent bacterial and yeast infections of the skin and ears, so these must be addressed as they arise. It is also imperative to control fleas on a year-round basis. Sensitive pets can be set off by the bite of just one flea! It can be a long process to determine which treatment a pet will respond to the best, but it is so rewarding to get an itchy friend comfortable again!