What a great time of the year!! Summer is almost here. Flowers are in bloom. Birds are singing. The sun is shining. Everyone you come in contact with appears to be in a better mood. You are planning your next picnic and cannot wait to get out-of-doors.
But, you’ve noticed that your cat has been sneezing and scratching more than usual? You wonder is it possible that my cat is allergic to something?
Answer: Yes, it is very possible. Allergies are one of the most common reasons why owners take their cat to see their veterinarian according to Dr. Betsy Arnold, DVM of Caring for Cats, located in Greece NY.
The “bad” news: just as with humans, allergies cannot be cured. It is a life-long chronic problem. The good news: your cat does not have to suffer needlessly. Once diagnosed, allergies can be controlled and thank goodness there are a number of treatments and options available.
Cats get allergies the same way humans do. Humans with allergies have runny noses, watery eyes, and sneeze. Cats have an allergic reaction when their immune system overreacts to anything that can range from certain ingredients in pet food, household chemicals, dust, pollen, or a flea bite. Any of these reactions will set off an alarm in the immune system causing the immune system to react by pumping out large amounts of white blood cells, hormones, and other material called “histamines” into the bloodstream.
To compensate, your cat will exhibit three types of reactions:
- The first, itching of the skin will occur either in one sensitive spot or all over. You may notice your cat itching and twitching, scratching non-stop in certain “hot spot” areas especially in the groin area, head/ears, or back feet.
- The second, your cat may have a more-than-usual runny nose or runny eyes.
- The third reaction involves persistent coughing, sneezing, or wheezing. Your cat could also have difficulty in breathing, and vomiting or diarrhea.
The Four Types of Cat Allergies
Flea allergies are the most common and the most easily treated. The worst time of the year for fleas is from early summer to late fall. Warmer climates may experience a more prolonged flea season. Cats are not allergic to the fleas themselves. They are allergic to the protein in the flea saliva when the fleas bite the cat. One flea bite can cause your cat to scratch and scratch until raw skin is exposed. Often the cat may scratch and chew so much that it removes its hair. You may also notice open sores or scabs on your cat’s skin. The most common affected areas are around the rear end and near the head, especially around the ears and neck. Frequent bathing and prescription medication, such as Advantage or Frontline which you can purchase from your veterinarian, can prevent fleas from finding a home on your cat in the first place! Your vet can also help diagnose whether your cat has an allergy to fleas and can treat your cat with steroids to control the scratching and subsequently block the allergic reaction. Also, do not forget that all bedding and rugs must be cleaned to make sure that there are no flea larvae. Check with your vet as there are many products on the market that can kill fleas in bedding and in living spaces.
The least common type of allergy in cats occurs when an animal’s skin comes in contact with the material they are allergic to, such as a flea collar or a favorite blanket. The skin at the point-of-contact may become irritated, discolored, have a noticeable lack of hair in that area because your cat has been scratching or biting the area, appear thicker in that one spot than in the other areas, or may have a strong odor. With a contact allergy the key is to identify the materials your cat is in contact with and through a process of trial and error, experiment with different materials to see if there is a noticeable difference when your cat is in contact with one material over the other.
One of the more complicated allergens, food allergies means adjusting your cat’s diet to a food which does not cause a negative reaction. This process too, becomes a trial and error event to see what foods may the culprit. Cats are not normally born with food allergies, their immune systems become sensitive to some part of the diet, such as grains or animal proteins. Finding the right special hypoallergenic diet for your cat can be a time-consuming and costly endeavor that is well worth it if your cat stops his/her allergic reactions. According to Dr. Betsy Arnold, DVM of Caring for Cats, located in Greece NY, your cat must be on a diet for a period for 4-8 weeks to see if he/she has an allergic reaction. Your cat must be eating the “test food” exclusively and not eat any other treats, vitamins, table scraps or plants. Also, you may have to try several foods before you find one that is right for your cat and this process can get costly. Remember, however, that there are plenty of humane society shelters that would gladly take your donated food.
Just as with humans,cats can get hay fever and become allergic to outside pollens and molds. Cats can also be allergic to dust mites, and mildew and molds that grow inside every home. Both inside and outside allergens produce severe itching, biting and scratching. Although inhalant allergies can spread across the entire body, they are usually concentrated in areas on the ears, feet, groin, and under the armpits. Your cat will develop “hot spots” which become hairless and irritated due to constant scratching and chewing. Keeping your cat in an air conditioned room, using an air filter, and with frequent vacuuming, you can help keep an inhalant allergy under control.
The First Line of Treatment
Although not a cure for the above-mentioned allergies, soothing shampoos containing oatmeal or Epsom salts, topical ointments, sprays, and lotions which are prescribed by your vet may also help ease itching and irritations. There are many medicinal shampoos and lotions on the market which your veterinarian can recommend. They range in price from $8-$25 per bottle.
If you have explored the above suggestions to no avail, you can talk to your veterinarian about other more involved or supplemental treatments available to alleviate your pets’ discomfort.
Other Treatment Options:
Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids- are a form of polyunsaturated fats, one of four basic types of fat that the body derives from food. (Cholesterol, saturated fat, and monounsaturated fat are the others.) Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish oils) have been shown to increase survival in humans with autoimmune diseases because the omega-3s help the arteries--as well as many other parts of the body--stay inflammation free. Many veterinarians recommend trying capsule or liquid dosages of Omega-3 fatty acids because some cats have responded favorably to Omega-3 supplements. DermCaps and Wellactin are two examples of supplements which can be used to reduce itching and other symptoms associated with allergic reactions.
Steroids—can be used for a short period of time and when you are not sure what is causing the allergic reaction. There are some side effects with steroids such as weight gain, weight loss, increased thirst and urination, increased aggression, risks which cause diabetes and heart problems. The cost for steroid shots and pills can range from $20 to $50 per visit.
Antihistamines-- Just as with human antihistamines, these drugs block the chemicals or histamines, released by the immune system. Itching and inflammation decreases with antihistamines. There are also side effects with this type of drug which includes sluggishness and drowsiness. Antihistamines include Chlor-Trimeton ( Chlorpheniramine Maleate) to over-the-counter medications recommended by your veterinarian. The costs for antihistamines range from $10-$30 per month.
Immunotherapy—the most expensive and time-consuming, immunotherapy is a safe way to treat allergies. If you have the inclination and the budget, your cat can be tested to see which type inhalant is the culprit. As with human testing, once the source is identified, the cat is given a small amount of that allergen to desensitize and “re-program” the immune system so that it does not have such a negative reaction to the problem causing allergen. Research statistics show that 50% of the cats will have a positive response to this type of treatment. Immunotherapy can be expensive and time consuming as it could take 6 months to one year to see any improvement. Immunotherapy costs range from $200 to $1000 for a skin patch test and serum for the first year. Note that the costs will vary depending upon where you live.
Cyclosporine—Atopica, the drug’s brand name, has been more recently used successfully to treat allergies in dogs. According to Dr. Arnold, even through Atopica has not been tested on or recommended for cats, the drug cyclosporine has been used to treat feline asthma and has been used in cases where large dosages of steroids cannot be tolerated. However, note that the cost of cyclosporine may be high.
- Dr. Betsy Arnold, DVM
- The Veterinary Drug Handbook 5 th ed., by Donald C. Plumb
- CBS News Saturday Morning –repeat May 2005 http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/02/15/earlyshow/saturday/main329558.shtml?CMP=ILC-SearchStories