Allergic Skin Disease

by Susan G Wynn, DVM


Allergies are the bane of many animal and human lives, and the signs, although variable depending on species, cause misery in a variety of ways. Atopy is a common allergy to pollens, grasses, house molds and a host of other allergens, and can affect both dogs and cats. These allergens can be inhaled, ingested, or sometimes absorbed through the skin; the resultant hypersensitivity causes a variety of clinical signs that are attributable to itchiness (pruritis). These signs may appear in the spring or fall, or even year round, and, like human allergies, cannot be cured-only controlled.

Atopy is usually inherited, and pets begin to show signs between six months and eight years of age. The most commonly affected breeds are terriers, Golden and Labrador retrievers, Schnauzers, Poodles, Lhasa Apso, Shih Tzu, and bulldogs. You may see your dog exhibiting foot licking, face rubbing, leg chewing, armpit scratching, head shaking, tail biting, discharges from the eyes or nose, and even post nasal drip (which is sometimes described as wheezing, snorting , reverse sneezing or trouble breathing). Related problems may include skin and ear infections and anal gland problems. Cats usually have small crusty lesions over part or all of the body, usually around the neck or over the back (Scott, et al, 1995).

Your pet's treatment may vary according to the severity of the problem. The easiest, least expensive control measure is to switch your pet's diet to a good quality natural food. Grocery store and even some premium brands may be composed of poor quality ingredients and contain preservatives, dyes, antibiotics (Markus, et al, 1989), and other chemicals that may contribute to overall ill-health or even be a source of allergic sensitivity in some animals (Parke and Lewis, 1992). Consider a high end chicken, turkey or lamb diet, available from pet stores, health food stores or your veterinarian. If one can improve overall health of the animal (and, therefore, of the skin), allergies and fleas will not usually cause such violent skin reactions.

Conventional veterinary recommendations for the treatment of atopy usually include fatty acid supplements, hypoallergenic shampoos and topical treatments (preferably oatmeal based), antihistamines, skin testing and allergy shots, and as a last resort, steroids . Allergy shots (or hyposensitization treatment) are effective approximately 50-80% of the time (Scott, et al, 1995). Different antihistamines are usually tried until the one that best controls the itching is found (in my practice, we will usually try 3 different antihistamines to find the one that works best for an individual dog; cats are not usually treated with antihistamines as successfully). Topical medications can be used to soothe hot spots and ear infections. Antibiotics and antifungals are used to control secondary bacterial and Malassezia (yeast) infections.

Holistic alternatives to these treatments will not only increase the health of the pet, but allow you to use fewer conventional drugs. In addition to a superior natural diet, some nutritional supplements may prove helpful. A basic veterinary vitamin-mineral supplement is a must, to start with. High doses of Vitamin C may have an antihistamine-like effect (Johnston, et al, 1992). Some veterinarians have found a combination of antioxidant elements to be helpful; these include §-carotene (or Vitamin A, in the case of a cat), Vitamin E, and selenium. Other antioxidants, such as quercetin, are used in human allergies. Antioxidants are best used in a broad combination, since most depend on the presence of the others for best action.

A fatty acid supplement is vital. Fish oil is best, since it supplies the highest levels of the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Flax seed oil is a good second choice-it is not converted to these fatty acids, but may still be helpful. Other vegetable oils, such as safflower oil, sunflower oil or even commercial products such as DermCaps?, contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids and will not control itching as well.

Herbal treatments may help decrease itching. Chinese herbs are quite effective in some cases, but should be prescribed according to Traditional Chinese Medical principles by a trained practitioner (Bensky and Gamble, 1993). Western herbs that are occasionally helpful might include yellow dock, burdock, nettles, cleavers, chickweed and various tonics, as well as specific antimicrobial and immunostimulant herbs, depending on the presence of concurrent infections. Calendula may help relieve irritated hot spots (Weiss, 1994; Tyler, 1994; Moore, 1994). Even black tea (such as Lipton) can help calm hot spots.

Other treatments that may be useful for skin allergies include homeopathy, acupuncture, and more. A new treatment used in some practices is NAET (Nambrudripad's Allergy Eliminaton Technique).

Managing allergies requires acute powers of observation. When people feel allergies coming on, they start treatment with antihistamines well before they become extremely uncomfortable or have already developed a raging sinus infection. You must be your pet's "watchdog"?treatment should begin with the onset of the most subtle signs of itchiness; for example, when a dog begins to lick the feet or scratch the ears. Starting fish oil treatment at the beginning of allergy season is an even better idea. Don't forget the value of simply washing a dog's feet after s/he comes in from a romp in the grass.

Diligent preventive treatment at this point can ensure that your pet will not develop the serious secondary problems like skin and ear infections. It is vital to work with a holistic veterinarian in administering alternative therapies to ensure that your pet is getting the care it needs.

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