Does your pet chronically itch? There's a good chance they have an allergy, or a sensitivity.
Unfortunately, pets with allergies or sensitivities (dogs especially) are very common these days. Conventional forms of treatment can be nutritionally poor and potentially toxic over the long term. Thankfully, there are natural solutions for helping your itchy and frustrated fur babe. Keep reading to learn all about allergies and safe options for supporting your precious fur babe.
Signs your fur babe has an allergy or sensitivity, or is predisposed to allergies
Typically, an animal who has an allergy or sensitivity will present with skin issues. This is because most animals' mast cells are located in their skin (the dermis). Our mast cellsare mostly located in the nose and upper airways. The science behind allergies goes something like this...
If an animal has a sensitivity or an allergy, their body can overproduce IgE (immunoglobulin antibodies, which are proteins made by the immune system in response to pathogens). The IgE will coat the animals mast cells, which will then release inflammatory mediators, like histamine. With the release of these inflammatory mediators, inflammation occurs.
The animal must have a predisposition to hypersensitivity for an allergic response to occur. Most dogs will develop allergies early, before or around 6 months of age. It can be a result of a genetic predisposition to overreact to potential allergens.
One of the telltale signs that your puppy will have allergies later in life is a condition called pododermatitis (inflammation of the foot). They will have itchy feet, which they constantly lick, and the saliva from all the licking will create brown staining.
Animals do also have a large number of mast cells in their digestive tract, and a smaller amount in their respiratory airways. So allergy symptoms can also include loose stools, gas, a running nose, watery eyes, coughing and sneezing.
Cats can also suffer cystitis (bladder inflammation).
It's important to note that there are other conditions that can present as skin issues such as external parasites (mange), ringworm (fungal infection), hypothyroidism (low functioning thyroid that can manifest as chronic itchy, greasy skin) and nutritional deficiencies (such as key nutrients and fatty acids, which may be due to dietary deficiency or suboptimal gut health).
Is it an allergy or a sensitivity?
You may be surprised to hear that true allergies are not very common in animals. Usually animals experience a sensitivity which manifests as lower-level inflammation.
If your pet has a true allergy, their immune system will immediately react. The reaction may be mild, like local or systemic inflammation and itchiness, to severe, like an anaphylactic response. Anaphylaxis can commonly occur in animals in reaction to vaccinations, plasma or blood transfusions, medications, and less frequently, bee or wasp stings.
If your pet has a sensitivity, the reaction tends to be more subtle and not as life threatening as the response to a true allergy.
Most common allergies / sensitivities
Flea allergy dermatitis
The most common skin allergy in dogs and cats is flea allergy dermatitis. When a flea bites your fur babe, the flea's saliva causes an allergic reaction. As well as being itchy at the bite, your fur babe can also be itchy elsewhere on their body, even where there are no fleas.
Symptoms of flea allergy dermatitis may include itchiness, redness, scabby skin, hot skin, moist skin, hot spots.
Next we have atopic dermatitis, which is caused by an allergy to an environmental source such as grasses, plants, pollen, dust mites and moulds. An immune response can be triggered via direct contact or inhalation.
This is the most difficult of the common allergy / sensitivity conditions to diagnose and treat, by nature of the fact that it's usually very difficult to identify the environmental source that your fur babe is reacting to. Sensitivity testing can be done to clarify the source.
Whilst initially presenting seasonally, atopic dermatitis can progress to being a year round issue.
Food sensitivity dermatitis
Unlike atopic dermatitis, food sensitivity dermatitis is not usually seasonal. It can also be easier to diagnose what food is causing the sensitivity, either by way of feeding an elimination diet and/or sensitivity testing.
Symptoms of food sensitivity dermatitis include itchy skin (face, ears, paws etc) and some pets will also suffer gastrointestinal issues such as chronic soft stools and gas.
How to figure out what your fur babe is reacting to
There are various way to determine what exactly it is that your fur babe is allergic or sensitive to.
Intradermal testing - your animal will be injected with a very small amount of specific allergen into the skin. Positive controls (histamine) and negative controls (sterile saline) will also be injected. If there is a skin reaction eg raised areas at the injection site, that will mean that your animal has a sensitivity or allergy to that particular allergen.
Blood / saliva testing - your animal's blood or saliva will be tested for antibodies for specific allergens. For food sensitivity testing, I recommend the Nutriscan test by Hemopet, as it's considered to be the only food sensitivity saliva-based test backed by scientific research.
BioResonance testing - your animal's fur and/or saliva will be tested against potential food and environmental sensitivities. This is an alternative form of testing that measures the biofrequency of the fur / saliva against certain foods and other substances eg mould, fungus, pollen, emulsifiers etc. This form of testing isn't scientifically backed but there is anecdotal evidence worldwide showing that it can help to identify sensitivities and improve health. If you're interested in trying this type of testing, have a look at the PetMedella Sensitivity Scan and the Ucari Pet Sensitivity & Intolerance Test. Both of these tests test against 1000 potential food and environmental sensitivities.
Sometimes multiple tests will be needed, for example, allergy testing and sensitivity testing.
Another form of testing for food sensitivities / allergies is an elimination / reintroduction food trial. This can be the most accurate way to assess whether your fur babe has a sensitivity or allergy to certain foods.
For a period of at least 8 to 12 weeks, you will need to feed your animal a protein and carbohydrate that they have never eaten before. Then after the elimination period, you can slowly reintroduce one food at a time to gauge whether there is a reaction eg red, itchy skin. If there is no reaction to the food, stop feeding that food and try another food. This process will continue until you have a range of foods that you can safely feed your fur babe.
Hypoallergenic diets will often be recommended by veterinarians, however, I don't recommend these diets for various reasons, including that:
they contain pet grade ingredients;
they don't contain whole foods - often they will include hydrolysed proteins (proteins that have had their molecular structure altered so that the body doesn't recognise the food as an allergen);
they contain artificial ingredients eg colours, preservatives; and
they usually are very high in carbohydrates.
Solutions for treating allergies / sensitivities
First up, it's important to recognise that there are two different approaches to treating allergies / sensitivities. The conventional way and the natural way.
The conventional approach will focus on chemical-based medications and prescription diets. This could mean:
Drugs to kill fleas - this will usually work to get rid of the fleas but it does mean exposing your fur babe to harmful chemicals.
Allergy desensitisation - this will suppress your fur babe's immune system, which can have negative long term effects with regard to the efficiency of your pet's immune health.
Drugs to control the inflammation, usually antihistamines, NSAIDS or steroids - drugs that have concerning long term health impacts (such as organ damage, diabetes), which your fur babe will become reliant upon, if they in fact work, to manage the symptoms (they won't fix the root of the problem).
Antibiotics or antifungals if there is infection secondary to the allergy / sensitivity.
A processed prescription diet, which will contain pet grade, low quality and artificial ingredients - this can contribute to health problems later in life and shorten your fur babe's life span.
The natural approach will focus on finding the root cause of the allergy or symptom, whilst supporting the immune, digestive and integumentary (which includes the skin) systems. Treatment options can include:
Natural flea control, such as diatomaceous earth, herbs, essential oils, flea combing. My favourites are Free & Clear Essence, which is a vibrational herb and flower essence that helps to control flea populations and manage itching, flea combing and food grade diatomaceous earth (which causes fleas to dehydrate and die; it can be applied like a flea powder and used in the environment).
Herbs to balance the immune system. We're not using herbs to SUPPRESS the immune system like the conventional pharmaceutical drugs do. We want the immune system to be healthy and function optimally. Suppressing the immune system does not support the immune system. So we use herbs that BALANCE or MODULATE the immune system.
Herbs with anti-allergy actions to reduce the severity of symptoms. Some of my favourites are Nettle and Licorice.
Herbs that support the skin. Two of my favourites are Calendula and Yarrow.
An elimination diet to identify if there is a food allergy or sensitivity.
Vitamin C (food based only) or Quercetin, both of which are natural antihistamines.
Digestive support - this might be a combination of digestive support foods and a digestive supplement. My favourites are Wholefood Prebiotic Powder, Digestive K9 (use RUTH10 to save 10%), PetWell Digest (use RUTH10 to save 10%) and Inside Out. Individually, supplements like glutamine and glucosamine, and herbs like Marshmallow Root and Slippery Elm, can be helpful to heal the gut lining.
Omega 3 fatty acids to manage inflammation, support the skin and support the immune system. My favourite is Antinol Rapid.
As you can see, allergies and sensitivities can be a minefield when it comes to finding a solution that will effectively help to provide your fur babe with long-lasting relief. There are so many different options, so many different forms of testing and so many options for helping your fur babe.