It’s that time of year again when environmental allergens start wreaking havoc on sinuses and skin. And it’s not just humans that suffer – your pets can also have reactions to allergens in the environment.
Allergens are predominately proteins from plants, insects, animals, or foods. Dogs and cats, in particular, may have reactions to airborne allergens such as dust, mold, mildew, dust mites, and pollen from trees, grass and weed. Other common allergens include fleas (flea saliva) and food ingredients (certain proteins).
Environmental allergies or atopy (formerly known as inhalant allergies) are an overreaction or hypersensitivity of the immune system to an airborne allergen that contacts the skin. When you or your pet are exposed to the allergen (usually multiple times over a long period) your immune system is sensitized to the allergen. Subsequent exposures to the same or similar allergens can cause your immune system to overreact. Pets have a defect in the skin barrier that predisposes them to developing environmental allergies.
In humans, inhaled allergens cause respiratory problems such as asthma. The same thing can happen to dogs and cats.
With dogs, asthma, or difficulty breathing, is typically referred to as allergic bronchitis because the condition is usually caused by something in the environment. Most often, allergic bronchitis is caused by something they have inhaled, although food allergens can play a role. Asthma—traditionally understood in humans as a chronic inflammation of the airways—is more often seen in smaller breeds of dogs than larger breeds, but in general, asthma is rare in dogs compared to cats.
In cats, the term ”feline bronchitis” may be used to describe the coughing and wheezing they experience when their lower airway is inflamed. The terms “asthma” and “bronchitis” may both be used with cats and are considered two parts of the same syndrome.
Clinical signs of allergic bronchitis in dogs almost always start with a dry, hacking cough, which can start slowly or all at once. More extreme and rarely seen signs of allergic bronchitis include difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing, open mouth breathing, pale mucous membranes (blueish gums), lethargy, exercise intolerance, lack of appetite, and weight loss.
Cats with feline asthma or bronchitis may experience many of the same symptoms, such as coughing and respiratory distress, both indicative of the condition given there are relatively few causes of coughing in cats. Coughing cats also may assume a squatting position with their neck extended when coughing.
The most common symptom of environmental allergies in both dogs and cats is itchy skin, either in one specific area or all over the body. Sometimes runny discharge from eyes or nose may be seen; in other cases, the allergy symptoms affect the digestive system, resulting in vomiting and diarrhea.
Common allergens that can trigger an asthma attack or allergic reaction include:
- dust from kitty litter
- smoke from smoking tobacco or from open-flame fireplaces, wood stoves or outdoor fires
- household cleaners, deodorizers, and air fresheners
- dust and dust mites
- tree, grass and weed pollens
- molds and mildew
If your dog or cat exhibits symptoms of asthma or an allergic reaction, speak to your veterinarian as soon as possible for therapy options.
Some ways to create a healthy living environment for a pet prone to environmental allergies or asthma include:
- Use electric fireplaces or candles instead of wood-burning fireplaces.
- Use natural products like baking soda and vinegar to deodorize and clean your home instead of harsh chemicals and air fresheners.
- Install an air purifying unit in your home.
- Bathe your pet regularly, especially if they have recently spent a lot of time outside. Frequent bathing can help limit the allergens that stay on their bodies and are ingested during grooming.
Remember: Animals are just like us in that they can be sensitive to allergens in the environment. If you know the discomfort that comes with allergies or asthma, then you know why getting these conditions under control is so important for your pet’s comfort.