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Pets' allergies are nothing to sneeze at.

Your dog may be scratching itself when the nearest flea is a block away. It may begin chewing its feet, but that is no indication it wants to go for a walk. Nor is your cat's sneezing, hacking, or wheezing necessarily evidence that it has come down with a cold. No, what your pet might have is an allergy. Four-footed animals, like their masters and mistresses, can be allergic to a variety of common substances-allergens, as they are known in professional circles. Fortunately, all mammals have an efficient, if complicated, mechanism that protects against infectious bugs, dusts, molds, and other potentially harmful foreign proteins. This system occasionally overreacts, however, and the result is an allergic reaction.

These reactions aren't caused overnight. They are rarely seen in animals less than a year old, and they tend to get worse with repeated exposure to the offending substance.

"But, Doc, he's been eating Crunchie Wunchies for four years, and he's never had this problem before" is the common plea of the pet's owner. The allergy could have been developing for several years, unnoticed.

Determining the Allergy

Most allergic reactions are annoying but relatively mild, and they rarely result in a life-threatening situation. However, uncommon anaphylactic reactions can be rapidly fatal. Reactions to penicillin, incompatible blood transfusions, or insect bites occur in people as well as in animals, and they can cause cardiovascular collapse, respiratory failure, and classic signs of shock. Prompt medical treatment is needed. Warn your veterinarian about any possible drug reactions or previous blood transfusions your pet has had.

Hives, which can also be caused by ingestion of foods or medications, is characterized by swelling of the tissues around the head, eyes, ears, and mouth. Other parts of the body may be affected with rounded, reddened areas where the hair is raised. The pet will show signs of intense itching, and it may rub its head on the ground in an effort to get relief. Wash the pet in a mild soap and go to your veterinarian for treatment.

Atopy is an allergic predisposition to inhaled substances or the ingestion of certain foods. Unlike pets, people respond to inhalant allergies with typical sinusitis/rhinitis symptoms (runny eyes, runny nose, sneezing). Instead, most pets are affected by intense itching. The itching seems to be concentrated around the forelegs, -the belly, and the feet. A pet that spends a lot of time chewing on its feet should be evaluated for an allergy. This itching must be differentiated from fleas and mange; a veterinary visit is necessary for an accurate diagnosis. Atopy can be seasonal, if due to certain pollens; symptoms from house dust or foods can be present year round. Food allergies, which are becoming more common, can be due to dyes and additives or any of the other ingredients found in common pet foods.

Flea allergy dermatitis is one of the most common allergic reactions. Even one or two flea bites can cause a severe reaction in a sensitive animal. The base of the tail, the hindquarters, and the lower abdomen are most often affected, but the condition may spread down the back, head, and neck in severe cases. Small scabs form and the skin often becomes infected. Large sores can develop where the pet has chewed and scratched, and there may be much hair loss. Good flea control and treatment for the skin infection are needed.

Contact allergy can cause skin redness, sores, and infection as well as hair loss. The classic example is the flea collar allergy. Remove the offending substance and bathe your pet with a mild soap to cleanse and soothe the skin. Feline acne, which appears as pimples under the cat's chin, is a type of contact allergy often due to contact with plastic food and water bowls. Pets should be fed and watered from glass or stainless steel dishes to avoid irritation.

Insect bites can cause localized pain and swelling. Treatment with cold packs and antihistamines can give the animal relief

Food allergies can cause a gastrointestinal reaction characterized by vomiting, diarrhea (perhaps bloody), and gas. Vomiting can occur soon after eating. The pet might feel well despite its gastrointestinal symptoms. Any chronic vomiting or diarrhea should be evaluated by your veterinarian to rule out other serious disease as a cause.

Feline asthma is another allergic reaction characterized by chronic coughing, wheezing, sneezing, or difficulty in breathing. This fairly common condition can be serious; it warrants a prompt visit to your veterinarian for treatment and ruling out of other causes of respiratory difficulty. The problem is often seasonal, unless the allergy is due to something present at all times, such as household dust or synthetic fabrics. Affected cats can be successfully treated with bronchodilators and corticosteroids.

Treatment for Allergies

Allergies cannot be "cured" in the conventional sense of the word. Ideally, the allergen will be identified and then eliminated from the animal's environment. However, identification and elimination are often impossible. The patch testing and desensitization process is expensive; it requires a board-certified veterinary dermatologist or someone experienced with the procedure; and results are often disappointing. In addition, most allergic pets, like most allergic people, turn out to be sensitive to many common allergens rather than a single agent. Patch testing involves injecting a small amount of various suspected foreign proteins into the skin and then actually measuring the reaction. Interpretation can be difficult, and it is best done by specialists, who can be found in most large cities or at university veterinary colleges.

Desensitization can be tried once the offending substances are identified. This involves injecting small amounts of the allergen at frequent intervals until the animal's body learns to tolerate it. Unfortunately, the success rate is fairly low (around 40 percent), even under the best of conditions. However, it might be worth a try if all other treatment fails.

The most common treatment for pet allergies is low-dose corticosteroids and antihistamines to control the symptoms. When given correctly, these drugs are safe and effective. In the case of food allergies, identifying the offending agent and simply eliminating it from your pet's diet is the best procedure. Commercial hypoallergenic diets are available, and most of the "premium" pet foods are made with high-quality ingredients free of dyes or other additives.

Sometimes boarding the pet for ten days to two weeks can identify an allergy as being caused by something in the household. If the symptoms disappear while the pet is boarded, household allergies can be suspected. It's surprising how often a perfume, hairspray, or synthetic fiber turns out to be the culprit. Diagnosing an allergy often requires some expert detective work and even pure luck. Even if the source of the allergy remains a mystery, your veterinarian can help you and your pet live with the problem.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on people's allergies to pets
Author:Hoeppner, Gabrielle
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:column
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:A bulb of benevolence.
Next Article:Say it again, Sam.

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