You keep getting awoken in the middle of the night. Your dog, normally sleeping comfortably on the bed (or hogging the bed, if he is anything like mine), is restless: Constantly scratching and licking at his feet.
It happens night after night until you bring him into your veterinarian to see if a cause can be found. After an exam, you get a diagnosis: Allergies.
As in people, allergies in pets happen when our pet’s immune system overreacts to something. Environmental allergies are more common than food allergies and both can have seasonal and nonseasonal signs. Pollens, molds, dust mites and even fleas are the most common allergens.
If a pet has an allergy to food, it is most likely due to the protein in that food, such as the chicken, beef or dairy ingredients.
Symptoms usually are related to the skin. In dogs, you might see licking and chewing at the feet, rubbing the face and a higher incidence of issues such as ear infections.
In cats, you might see them overgrooming themselves so much that they will lose hair on their belly and on the sides of their legs.
With some food sensitivities, dogs and cats might show issues with diarrhea or vomiting, but many will show skin symptoms as well. Cats particularly are prone to asthma and — just like in people — might be more likely to have an asthma attack if exposed to certain irritants such as cigarette smoke, incense or scented candles.
As in people, allergy signs can develop at any time in your pet’s life. And — also like in people — allergies generally are a medical issue that only can be managed, not cured.
There is allergy testing available for pets that can help. The gold standard is for a pet to visit a veterinary dermatologist and have skin testing done. During this test dozens of allergens are injected into the skin and the results are evaluated. There is blood testing available to screen for both environmental and food allergens. While this is less invasive, the results are not as sensitive or specific as the skin testing can be.
That being said, with the results of these tests, desensitization treatments (“allergy shots,” though it can be a liquid given by mouth) can be formulated and administered to the pet which might — over time — reduce the pet’s response to a particular allergen.
Allergies to food particularly are difficult to diagnose and manage, requiring very restrictive food trials that take three months or longer.
Most pets, as with most people, end up relying on medications to help manage their allergy symptoms. Treatment often starts with antihistamines and could progress to use of steroids, immunosuppressive medications and new medications that alter the body’s response to the itch itself.
Different supplements could be effective for some pets. As I like to say, there are dozens of ways to manage allergies, which tells me that none of them work 100% of the time. You and your veterinarian will need to discuss the pros and cons of each treatment and might need to try several different plans to see what works with each individual pet. And that plan might need to change at different times of the year.
Allergies are one of the most common (and frustrating) things that we deal with routinely at the veterinary clinic. However, with a plan tailored to fit the need of your individual pet, hopefully everyone can be more comfortable and get back to sleeping peacefully.