When presented with a patient that has a history of seasonally inflamed, itchy skin that responds poorly to maintenance medication, most veterinarians immediately begin to suspect allergies.
After ruling out parasites, skin infection, and other causes of pruritus and inflammation, the next step is often to recommend allergy testing.
The benefits and limitations of allergy testing
Allergy testing can be very effective in identifying the underlying cause of atopic dermatitis, a condition that is typically caused by the inhalation of pollen, mold spores, dust, and other allergens. Allergy testing is not, however, recommended for the diagnosis of food allergies. (Diagnosis of food allergies requires a food trial with a hypoallergenic diet.)
It is also important to note that allergy testing cannot be used to determine whether or not a patient has atopic dermatitis. Atopic dermatitis must first be diagnosed based on history, clinical signs, and the exclusion of other skin diseases. Allergy testing is only beneficial in seeking the underlying cause of already-diagnosed atopy, in preparation for immunotherapy and other treatments designed to decrease reactions to specific allergens.
Allergy testing in dogs typically takes one of two forms: intradermal skin testing, or blood (serum) testing. Each method has its own unique advantages and disadvantages, from both a medical standpoint and a client standpoint.
Immunotherapy for Allergies in Dogs and Cats
Allergen-specific immunotherapy (ASIT), commonly referred to as allergy shots, are the most effective way to address airborne allergies, sometimes even resulting in a permanent cure. This sounds wonderful but there is an expense involved plus it commonly takes a year to realize results and will not help the pet (or person) who is experiencing symptoms right now. ASIT involves the use of an individually-made serum, created using small amounts of allergens (proteins against which the person or pet reacts). The patient periodically receives injections of gradually increasing amounts of allergens until a maintenance level is reached. This method of allergy control uses the patient’s own immune system rather than drugs to address the symptoms of allergy. It may seem odd that injecting someone with the very substances to which they are allergic helpful but, in fact, it works. All other therapies for airborne allergies basically aim to suppress the symptoms; allergen-specific immunotherapy is the only therapy that actually works against the immunological disease. The earlier in the allergic patient’s life ASIT is started, the better the results. Regular rechecks are needed through the course of ASIT.
How the Furnace Can Aggravate Your Pet’s Allergies
During the winter months, pet owners and pets tend to stay inside more, away from the cold and snowy conditions outside. If you live in a cold climate and your pet experiences allergies, you’ll probably be relieved that the grass and leaves have died, and that pollen won’t resurface until spring.
Unfortunately, many dog owners discover that their dog’s allergies are still acting up, even inside during the winter months. Sneezing, runny eyes, scratching and inflamed skin can persist year-round, but how? What you may not have considered is that your heating system, running constantly in your cooped-up home, might be circulating dust and mold your pet is allergic to.
Indoor allergies are common, too
When most people think of allergies, they either think of food allergies or seasonal allergies caused by outdoor plants and pollen. This is why many pet owners are surprised to discover that their pet’s allergy symptoms are still active during the winter after the plants have died and pollen is long gone.
However, many indoor substances can be allergens to cats and dogs, too. Things like chemical cleaners and certain brands of cat litter, as well as airborne allergens like dust and mold, can cause allergy symptoms when they are touched or inhaled by your pet. And, because pets tend to be cooped up inside during the winter with the doors and windows closed, their allergies may be even worse than before because your home is not getting as much fresh air or circulation as it does in the warmer months.
Central heating systems can contribute to these allergies in a very significant way. If dust or mold and mildew have been able to accumulate in your air filter or air ducts, those allergens are being pushed through your vents and circulated throughout your home day after day. When your allergy-ridden pup or kitten takes a breath, they may start to suffer from the irritating symptoms of allergies.
What to do if winter allergies plague your pet
If your pet is starting to show signs of allergies this winter, understand that it could be due to a number of things around your home. If you recently started running your furnace, though, that may be a hint that the allergies are related to an airborne allergen. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to try and eliminate the problem early on and offer your pet some relief.
- Check the air filter: The air filter in your furnace should be changed every few months to ensure the proper function of your heating and cooling system. Over time, this filter collects dust and debris and prevents it from being circulated through your HVAC system. If it doesn’t get changed regularly enough, not only will you have furnace problems, but that dust and debris might begin to be pushed through the ducts anyway, since the filter can’t work as it was intended. Check your air filter and replace it if it’s dirty as a first step in relieving your home of debris.
- Clean your air ducts: No matter if you have metal or flexible air ducts, they’re bound to collect some dust and debris over time. Air ducts are often out of sight, out of mind for homeowners, and it’s not until they look inside that they realize the number of air particles being circulated every day. Dirty air ducts can push dust, as well as mold spores, out through the vents, leading to irritated lungs and allergies for pets and humans. If your ducts haven’t been cleaned in a few years, now is the time to have them professionally cleaned out.
- Use a HEPA filter: A high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter placed in the room your pet sleeps in most often can help pull the majority of dust or mold particles out of the air so you and your pets can breathe more easily. HEPA filters are useful for all kinds of airborne allergens, but they can be particularly beneficial during the winter months when fresh air is scarce.
Doing these few things to clean out your home’s central air system and create a particle-free space may help alleviate your pet’s allergy symptoms. Unfortunately, not all pets will have the same allergies, and it’s possible that your pet is allergic to something else entirely. You should also check your pet for fleas, as these are common causes of winter allergy responses.
If your pet’s allergy symptoms persist for a few days after you’ve taken steps to mitigate dust and pests, take them to the vet and inquire about allergy testing to help determine their specific allergens. Your vet may also suggest using itch support products and changing food, litter, and other household items to relieve your pet of their discomfort.