Worried That Your Furry Friend Has Allergies? Here's What to Watch For and How to Help

It started one day when I thought my dog was drooling on me. "Gross, Dakota," I said as I got up to wipe my arm. But then, as I sat back down next to my Siberian husky, I realized that it wasn't drool, but was her nose that was dripping, like she had a cold. I made a mental note to pay extra close attention to her during the next day or so to see if she was, in fact, not feeling well or if it was just a fluke. "Maybe she licked her nose and it was wet," I thought. "Or maybe it was wet from her water bowl."

Then I realized she seemed extra itchy, and she was scratching a bit more aggressively than usual. Cue crazy flea checks, combings, and bathings. The last straw came a day later when she yelped after digging in her ear, trying to clean it out. After a trip to the vet (and about $200 later!), I learned that my sweet girl had seasonal allergies, something that is more common in pets than one may think.

"Allergies are an extremely common problem in pets, but a lot of times, people don't realize it until the symptoms are extreme," said Rebecca Krimins, DVM, MS, and an associate professor and co-director of the Center for Image-Guided Animal Therapy at John Hopkins University. And very much like people, your furry friend can be allergic to a plethora of things, added Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club.

"Pets can be allergic to things like mold, pollen, and dust mites. Sometimes it's hard to figure out if it's seasonal or not," he said. Dr. Klein noted that cats can sometimes develop feline asthma if they are exposed — and allergic — to things like dirt, dust, and smoke in the environment. "When you begin to see a pattern, it's indicative of a seasonal allergy," he said. Otherwise, Dr. Klein recommends that further exploration of these triggers and year-round treatment may be necessary after consulting with your vet.

How can I tell if my pet has allergies?

In both cats and dogs, Dr. Krimins said that the signs of seasonal allergies are quite similar and usually start with the skin. "Usually, the skin often gets irritated and the animal produces something called sebum," she said. "They get a little greasy looking, sometimes they smell, and they get itchy in some common places, like in their paws, ears, and muzzle area. One of the major signs of allergies is if your pet stops eating to scratch themselves because normal itches shouldn't be impacting their quality of life." She explains that it's important for your pet to have healthy, intact skin, since it acts as a barrier. "If your pet is chronically affected by allergies, the skin thickens and can turn brown," Dr. Krimins said — another sign to watch for.

Other symptoms include runny eyes or nose, according to Dr. Klein. However, there is one benefit to knowing if your pet has seasonal allergies. "When your pet has seasonal allergies, you can predict when they are going to begin and start to offset the symptoms either before they start or soon after," he said, ensuring your beloved furry family member isn't uncomfortable.

How can I treat my pet's allergies?

Both Drs. Klein and Krimins said that treatment varies and every case is different. Dr. Klein said that for some mild cases, pets can be relieved with frequent bathing with hypo-allergenic shampoo, while some may require anti-inflammatory therapy. Dr. Krimins said she has seen several other types of testing. These include:

  • Skin allergy testing: An area of the skin is tested for environmental allergens and then immunotherapies are created for the dog or cat.
  • Food elimination diet: Dr. Krimins said she has seen this work for dogs that have food allergies. However, owners have to be conscious to stick to the diet or else it won't work. Treats and table scraps, she said, can skew these results, so pet owners need to be extra committed to this plan.
  • Serum tests: Dogs and cats have their blood drawn and then tested for different types of allergies.

"There are really amazing treatments that have revolutionized pet treatment. They've become very safe and very effective with few side effects. If you can't cure an animal of seasonal allergies, you can make their quality of life better," Dr. Krimins said. Additionally, if you feel your pet has allergies but seem to have a hard time getting a diagnosis, a specialist may be the answer. "In veterinary medicine, we have veterinary dermatologists who specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases of the skin. For any pet that suffers from moderate or severe allergies, or has been difficult to diagnose, pet owners should be aware that there are veterinary dermatologists that can be consulted. They work with the pet's regular veterinarian to ensure the pet is on the appropriate treatment regime," added Dr. Krimins. The American College of Veterinary Dermatology has a list of dermatologists to help you find one nearby.

How can I treat my pet's allergies at home?

There are a few things you can do from home — whether your pet has seasonal allergies or not — to make their life a bit healthier and more comfortable. "Keep them clean and bathed. Wipe and dry their paws when they come in the house to remove any bacteria or things they may have attracted. Keep them up to date on their flea medication, as many pets have flea allergies. Clean their ears consistently, too," Dr. Krimins said. And, while your furry friend may hate the vacuum, Dr. Krimins said this is actually one of the keys to healthy living. "When you see dust all balled up under the furniture and in the corners — there are dust mites in there. A lot of dogs are allergic to them, so keep on top of it," she advised. And you'll have an overall happy and healthy fur baby.