The latest on allergies in dogs, cats

Is your dog or cat itching and scratching uncontrollably? It’s frustrating and sometimes even disturbing to see them so uncomfortable as they lick and chew at their feet and flanks, or frantically rub their faces on the carpet.

Itchy skin is a common problem in pets. Pollen, mold, grass, trees, weeds, dust, flea bites and some food ingredients can all cause itchiness and other allergic reactions.

Determining what’s behind the itchiness is a process of elimination. Your veterinarian may look for flea dirt on your pet’s body and recommend a preventive product if your dog or cat isn’t already on one; perform skin scrapings to check for infections caused by bacteria or yeast, which commonly accompany allergies; or suggest an elimination diet to rule out food allergies.

Pets who get itchy only at certain times of the year or who aren’t helped by flea-control products or a change in diet are likely suffering from an inhalant allergy caused by pollen, mold or dust. Food allergies, which are more common in cats than in dogs, usually involve sensitivity to common animal or plant proteins, such as beef, chicken or soy.

Can allergies be eliminated? There’s no magic bullet to resolve them, and many pets need a combination of therapies for best results. A cure is unlikely, but better treatments are available – or in the pipeline – to help quell the itching, runny eyes, ear infections and snoring that often accompany allergies in pets.

Drugs called kinase inhibitors work by changing cellular function to fight itchiness. An example is a drug called Apoquel (oclacitinib).

“Results in head-to-head studies against either prednisolone or cyclosporine show the drug to be equally effective in control of itch and inflammation and to have a very rapid onset of action, with relief sometimes apparent within hours of oral administration,” said board-certified veterinary dermatologist Dr. Douglas J. DeBoer of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in the proceedings of the 2016 North American Veterinary Community Conference in Orlando, Fla.

Other biologics with promise are called monoclonal antibodies. They are a type of immunotherapy that can be directed against key molecules that cause itchiness. A monthly injectable treatment is available for dogs.

Some dogs respond to old-school immunotherapy: allergy shots. Testing determines the substances to which the dog is allergic – cats, for instance, or Bermuda grass. Then a veterinary dermatologist creates an allergy shot to hyposensitize the dog to specific allergens. Up to 75 percent of dogs get relief from allergy shots, although some may need additional therapies at certain times of year, depending on the type of allergy.

A more conservative treatment that is a good adjunct to medications is a high level of supplementation with essential fatty acids, or EFAs. They can have anti-inflammatory effects and may help to improve the skin’s barrier function – its ability to control colonization by bacteria that cause itchy skin infections. It usually takes a month or two before effects are noticeable. Topical treatments such as shampoos and moisturizers can also help to enhance barrier function.

For pets who may have food allergies, an elimination trial – feeding a food that contains ingredients a pet has never eaten before – can help to identify the dietary culprit.

It’s a painstaking process. Simply switching from one brand or protein to another isn’t enough., because most commercial pet foods contain trace amounts of allergens that may not be listed on the label. That’s why trial diets usually comprise odd combinations such as kangaroo and oats or fish and potatoes. If the pet improves after eight to 12 weeks of eating only the hypoallergenic diet (no treats or table foods), ingredients are added back into meals one by one until it’s clear which one is causing the problem.

Vitamin D for dogs?

Q: If vitamin D supplementation is beneficial for humans, can it benefit dogs, too?

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A: That’s a great question! Researchers at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine published a study in the January/February 2014 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine suggesting that vitamin D deficiency could be a risk factor in congestive heart failure (CHF) in dogs.

They analyzed 31 dogs with CHF related to chronic valvular disease or to dilated cardiomyopathy, with 51 dogs unaffected by heart disease serving as controls. All the dogs were patients at Cornell University Hospital for Animals, which meant that blood samples could be taken simultaneously for evaluation of vitamin D levels.

The dogs with CHF had significantly lower levels of vitamin D in the bloodstream than the control dogs. A planned second phase of the study would supplement dogs being treated for CHF with vitamin D in addition to their regular medication.

Does this mean that owners whose dogs have heart disease should be giving their pets vitamin D? No. Excess doses of vitamin D can cause a condition called hypercalcemia. Depending on the severity of it, signs can range from lethargy and decreased appetite to kidney failure and even death. Without more information, supplementation isn’t recommended.

In this study, the dogs’ diet was not controlled, and the food they ate was not analyzed for vitamin D levels, so the amount of vitamin D they received through their diet was an estimate. Also, vitamin D can be stored in body fat. That could reduce the levels of vitamin D found in circulating blood. Joseph Wakshlag, a Cornell veterinary nutritionist, suggests that the lower levels of vitamin D found in dogs with CHF may mean that some element of the disease causes a lower concentration of vitamin D in circulating blood. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.