We typically think of itchy eyes, sneezing and fatigue as common allergy symptoms in humans, but if your pet is excessively grooming, licking, itching or has a terrible smell, he/she could be suffering as well.

Allergies, defined as the body’s response to foreign proteins, are one of the most common health problems for people and pets alike. Just like in humans, animals experience allergic reactions because the immune system overreacts to a foreign material, such as pollen, dust, a specific food protein or an insect bite. This reaction often causes the body to produce large amounts of white blood cells and histamines into the bloodstream. The result can be a wide range of symptoms, including itching, chronic ear infections and even vomiting or diarrhea.

Unfortunately, these will be chronic problems for the allergic pet, but relief is possible.

Three types of allergies most commonly affect pets. These include flea allergies, food allergies and transdermal or inhalant allergies, also known as atopy. Allergies are considered to be any of the common responses to pollens, flea bites and foods that result in itching (pruritis).

Flea allergies: Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD) is the most common skin disease in pets. Pets with FAD actually develop allergic reactions to chemicals in flea saliva, including redness, bumps, scabs and hair loss. Aggressive flea control is essential for pets with this type of allergy.

Food allergies: In pets with food allergies, the immune system produces antibodies against some part of the food—usually a protein—that it should normally tolerate. This excessive response typically results in itching or recurrent skin or ear infections. The most common causes of food allergies are proteins from dairy products, beef, lamb, venison or wheat, though virtually any food ingredient can be responsible. Often, food trials are necessary to determine the problem ingredient. The only cure is avoidance and a new, properly balanced diet.

Atopy: Transdermal or inhalant allergies are caused by topical allergens—like pollens, dust and mold—to which the pet’s immune system overreacts. These are similar to the causes of hay fever or asthma in humans. The allergens are absorbed through the skin or inhaled and an allergic response occurs, often resulting in seasonal, generalized itching. Atopic animals will usually rub, lick, chew, bite or scratch at their feet, muzzle, ears, armpits or groin, causing hair loss and reddening of the skin. Others may only experience chronic ear inflammation or infection. As with food allergies, finding the exact source of the problem is not easy. Often, anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids, antihistamines and immunosuppressants (or a combination of these) will alleviate itching. Many animals also benefit from weekly bathing with special shampoos or topical sprays.

The bottom line with pet allergies is that it is often a long, frustrating process before it is determined what works best for a particular individual. Diligent care and close communication with a veterinarian to see how the pet is responding to therapy is essential to success.