Allergies are common in all our animals – dogs, cats and even horses, causing a variety of uncomfortable symptoms. Some will be affected all year round, but some allergies are very seasonal, with the spring and summer months being especially problematic. Luckily, there are a wide range of products and medications available to help control this uncomfortable condition and help keep pets and horses healthy and happy throughout the year!
What is an allergy?
An allergy happens when the body’s immune system mistakenly reacts to a normal, harmless substance, such as pollen or grass, as a threat. The immune system launches an inflammatory response, which leads to the allergy symptoms such as red, itchy, and sore skin.
Types of allergies in pets
Pets can be allergic to many different things, and some pets have multiple allergies. ‘Allergen’ is the term to describe substances which cause allergies.
There are three main groups of allergies.
1. Environmental allergies
‘Atopy’ or ‘atopic dermatitis’ is the condition where pets react to allergens in the environment. Common allergens in this category include pollens, grasses, mould, house dust mites and storage mites.1 Atopy can be either seasonal or year-round, depending on the allergen involved. The majority (up to 75%) do have some seasonal variation in their symptoms.2
2. Food allergies
Food allergies occur when the pet reacts to a particular food molecule in their diet – often a type of protein or additive. The allergy can begin even when the pet has been eating the food for a significant time. In dogs and cats, food allergies usually result in itchy skin, rather than digestive problems.
3. Flea saliva
Flea allergic dermatitis (FAD) occurs when pets react to the saliva of fleas, which enters the skin when these small parasites bite. This is an extremely common allergy in pets, but especially in cats – with studies reporting up to around 1 in 12 cats showing signs of FAD.3
Symptoms and diagnosis
Allergies in pets can cause a range of symptoms, but generally present dermatologically.
Common signs include:
- Itching (pruritis) – this may be seen as licking, scratching, rubbing or excessive grooming
- Red skin
- Moist eczema/hot spots
- Red spots (rash), scurfy or scabby areas
- Hair loss (alopecia)
If any of these signs are seen, veterinary attention is advised. The diagnosis for allergies is a multi-step process depending on history and symptoms. Tests may include ruling out parasites, food trials, and blood or skin testing.
Allergies in horses
While we tend not to think about allergic disease in horses and ponies, there is one very, very common allergic condition we see at this time of year – Sweet Itch. This is an allergy to the saliva of Cullicoides midges, and typically results in intense itching and hair loss around the tail base, mane and forelock4.
Treating allergies in pets
Allergies are complex and treatment is rarely straightforward. Each individual case will require a treatment plan tailored to their specific needs and condition.
There are four main management strategies for allergies: allergen avoidance, anti-itch medication, topical therapy and immunotherapy.
In some cases, such as with food and flea allergies, it may be possibly to hugely reduce or eliminate exposure to the cause. Effective and regular flea treatments, home management, wiping down after walks and specialized diets are all ways that specific allergens can be taken out of the equation.
If your pet has been tested for specific allergies, a patient-targeted immunotherapy medication can be made. This is a solution made up of small amounts of the allergens that your pet reacts to, which is injected at slowly increasing doses over the course of several months to ‘teach’ the immune system not to react, and that these allergens are harmless.
Many pets with allergies are thought to have an altered skin barrier, allowing normal microorganisms which live on the skin, such as bacteria, to overgrow and cause irritation and infection. Topical treatments, such as shampoos, mousses, foams, wipes and pads, can all help provide relief and keep the skin as healthy as possible.
There may also be some benefit to the skin barrier in using supplements containing essential fatty acids.
Allergies cause uncomfortable and irritating symptoms such as severe itching and sore skin. Medications are generally used to control itching and therefore make your pet feel much more comfortable and happier, as well as halting the itch-scratch cycle that can lead to progressively sore and infected skin. There are a variety of options available, which your vet can discuss with you. Some medications are available in oral form to take at home, others can be given by injection. Antihistamines or forms of steroid may also be used to reduce inflammation and itching.
Treating allergies in horses
The mainstay of controlling any allergy is preventing the allergen from getting to the horse – so we strongly advise the use of restricted grazing (avoiding the times and places where the midges are most frequent – typically, they are most active at dawn and dusk, and around watercourses. However, in practice this is not easy, and so use of an effective fly rug (such as a Bowett Rug) is recommended. Fly repellents and barrier treatments may also help some horses.
There is also a natural food supplement that is beneficial to horses and ponies that are generally itchy during the summer months – Cavalesse, which may help to reduce the severity of symptoms alongside management.
Allergies: Be Aware!
- Allergies are common in pets, and may become more apparent in the spring and summer months
- Watch out for itchy, scratchy pets, with red, sore, or hairless patches of skin; or horses with rubbed tails and manes
- Allergies can be complicated to both diagnose and treat
- Treatment may involve avoiding specific allergens, anti-itch medication, topical treatments, or immunotherapy – or a combination!
- Mueller, R., Janda, J., Jenson-Jarolam, E. & Rhyner, C. (2015) ‘Allergens in veterinary medicine’ European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 71(1)
- Griffin, C. & DeBoer, D. (2001) ‘The ACVD taskforce on canine atopic dermatitis: clinical manifestations of atopic dermatitis’ Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology 81(3-4) pp.255-269
- Bond, R., Riddle, A., Mottram, L. & Stevenson, R. (2007) ‘Survey of flea infestation in dogs and cats in the United Kingdom during 2005’ Vet Record 160(15)
- Curnow, B. & Darroch, I. (2022) ‘Approaching the future management of sweet itch’ UK-Vet Equine 6:2, 56-60