Itchy and scratchy: common skin allergies in cats and dogs and what to watch for
Ah, springtime. That magical time of year when the flowers bloom, the birds sing, and your pet starts itching and scratching like crazy. Pet skin allergies are common in cats and dogs, and as the temperatures warm up in spring, so do the things that can cause skin irritation in pets.
Just like us humans, pet skin allergies and irritations can be caused by a range of things – and can vary in severity. When your pet is scratching, itching and licking themselves, checking their body and coat carefully for any signs is a good idea. Hair loss, a thinning coat, red skin, flaky skin/dandruff or scabby skin could be a sign your pet has an allergy.
How to tell if your pet has a skin allergy
Types of allergies
It’s worth remembering that allergies can get worse with repeated exposure. If you think your pet has a skin problem or they are showing signs of discomfort, it’s a good idea to take them to a veterinarian. They’ll examine your pet and they’ll be able to give you advice tailored to your pet’s needs.
Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD)
Pet parasites like fleas are something to watch out for in the warmer months. Pets with flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) will have an allergic reaction to the flea’s saliva.
In dogs, the common signs are:
- Excessive scratching
- Excessive skin biting
- Hair loss, with crusty patches of skin
- Moist, red skin rash
Cats often have a similar reaction to dogs, as well as:
- Excessive grooming
- Scratches around their tail, neck or ears
- Skin ulcers
- Tiny scabs (you might be able to feel these, but not see them)
If your pet has fleas, you might notice fleas on them and ‘flea dirt’ (flea poo). Getting rid of and preventing fleas and parasites is essential if your pet is allergic to fleabites. Regularly vacuuming in the lesser-used nooks and crannies of your home and washing pet bedding is an excellent way to do this.
Your veterinarian might diagnose FAD through allergy testing and treatments could include antibiotics, an Elizabethan collar or anti-inflammatory medications along with effective flea control.
Also known as atopy, atopic dermatitis is when a pet’s immune system overreacts to allergens causing their skin to become inflamed. Allergens are everyday things in the environment that are harmless to most, like dust, grass and pollen, but can cause reactions in some pets. Pets with this condition can be super sensitive to allergens and might cause further skin issues by itching and scratching themselves a lot.
It could be that your pet is genetically predisposed to this kind of allergy; skin barrier issues and an abnormal immune response can also be the cause.
Signs of this pet skin allergy include:
- Scratching, chewing, licking and/or rubbing their skin
- Hair loss
- Red skin
- Tiny red or white ‘pimples’ on their skin
- Skin ulcers
- Odd-smelling skin
Pets with atopic dermatitis can sometimes have other skin issues and allergies too. Your veterinarian might recommend a series of tests to find out if your pet has atopy. Treatments can include treating any underlying issues (like food allergies), allergy treatment (ASIT), Omega-3 essential fatty acids and medicated shampoos.
Other pet skin irritation causes
Your pet might not have an allergy – they could experience skin irritation caused by something else.
Fleas, ticks and worms can cause your pet to itch and wriggle. There are plenty of treatment options available from veterinary clinics, but prevention is the best way to tackle these pesky parasites.
The innocent-looking grass seed can cause skin irritation, because its barb-like shape can pierce and work its way under your pet’s skin. Don’t forget to check your dog’s coat (particularly if they have long hair) and in between their toes after they’ve been playing in long grass.
Moisture - wet coat and skin can cause irritation especially in skin folds and paws.
How to prevent skin allergies
If your dog or cat is diagnosed with allergies or a skin condition, your veterinarian might create a treatment plan for your pet, based on their particular issues. Medication or a specialised diet may be prescribed. Prevention will also be a key part of this plan: reducing your fur baby’s exposure to the thing that’s making them itchy.
Tips to prevent skin allergies
- Make a habit of checking your pet’s skin and coat carefully after you’ve been out for a long walk together or they’ve been playing outside. Check for grass seeds and take note of your pet’s skin condition in case anything has changed. Regular checks will mean you’re more likely to spot a problem before it gets worse.
- Ask your veterinarian if you should use a medicated shampoo when washing your dog if they’ve got sensitive skin. In winter, it’s a good idea to thoroughly dry your dog with a towel after walks as the cold wet weather and the grit and chemicals used to de-ice roads can irritate your dog’s skin.
- Make sure you’re feeding your pet a healthy, well-balanced diet and that they have access to plenty of fresh water. Healthy on the inside means healthy skin and coat on the outside! Your veterinarian might recommend a special diet if your pet’s skin issue is related to a food allergy.
- Stop the itch! While a little itching and biting there and there is normal, excessive itching and biting could make your pet’s skin condition worse. An Elizabethan collar or a special coat might be in order to prevent your pet from making their skin worse.
- Pet-proof your home and outdoor areas so that your pet can’t get to chemicals, plants or substances that could cause them to have a reaction. Cleaning pet poo up as soon as possible (put it into your landfill bin) and cleaning parasite-paradise areas like cupboard corners will help prevent your pet getting sick from worms and fleas.
- Avoid or minimise exposure to known allergens by vacuuming dust, avoiding grassy areas, walking on pavement or dirt tracks, avoid pollenous plants & bushes.
Pet skin allergies can be an issue year-round, but as the weather warms up and we get outdoors more, the problem becomes more prevalent. If your pet is turning into a professional itch scratcher, look out for the tell-tale signs of skin allergies and give your veterinarian a shout if you think there’s an issue. And as is often the case, prevention is the best measure – make a habit of keeping your pet’s areas clean and check their skin and coat condition so that this spring and summer are full of fun and itch-free.