With summer’s warmer temperatures comes the annual yellow dusting of plant pollens in the environment. You may notice your dog or cat starts coughing and wheezing or comes down with a bit of runny nose and watery eyes, and even begin some scratching or paw licking. It’s important to recognize whether your pet is suffering from seasonal allergies or asthma, a more concerning problem that, if left untreated, can be fatal.
What are allergies?
An allergy is the body’s immune response to a foreign element, called an allergen. Normally, these substances (dust mites, pollen, certain foods, grasses) are harmless to most animals. In a hypersensitive pet, the immune system identifies the allergen as a ‘threat’ and produces cells, called antibodies, designed to destroy the material. This influx of antibodies is responsible for the inflammation, redness, itching, runny nose, sneezing and coughing usually associated with allergies.
More common in dogs than in cats, allergies fall into three classifications:
- Atopy, caused by airborne allergens such as pollen, ragweed and dust, results in the sniffy nose, watery eyes, and itchy skin seen in sensitive dogs beginning in the spring and running throughout the warmer months of the year.
- Food allergies are year-round and may be triggered by a particular protein – and exacerbated by grain – in your dog’s food. Symptoms of food allergies can include incessant paw licking, scratching and biting at the skin, hair loss, and chronic ear infections.
- Contact allergies, the type of allergic reaction seen most often in cats, show as a localized inflamed, itchy patch on your pet’s skin, typically accompanied by hair loss in the area. Insect bites, particularly flea bites, off-brand flea/tick drop-on repellants, and household chemicals are the most common agents causing this type of reaction. ***Please Note: Off-brand flea and tick repellents purchased at big box discount stores can cause dangerous reactions resembling chemical burns down the backs of sensitive dogs and cats.
What is asthma, and how does it differ from allergies?
Feline and canine asthma can be defined as an inflammation of the small passageways of the animal’s lungs typically characterized by coughing and wheezing and breathing difficulties. While the symptoms of asthma are similar in cats and dogs, the causes and duration of the illness can be very different.
Canine asthma, called allergic bronchitis, is almost always caused by a reaction to something the dog has inhaled in the environment. This acute allergic response causes the lung’s airways to spasm and constrict, resulting in wheezing, shortness of breath, and an inability to breath properly. In extreme cases, the dog will have to breathe through its mouth to get enough air and the gums will turn blue from oxygen deprivation. This is a veterinary emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
The exact trigger to the initial asthma attack may never be identified, but, if the condition becomes chronic, there are a number of therapies and treatments available to manage the disease in dogs.
You may be asked to keep an “allergy diary,” that records when your dog has an attack, the severity of the attack, how long it lasted and what potential inhaled allergens your dog may have been exposed to at that time. If the allergen can be named, you’ll need to take steps to remove the material from your dog’s immediate environment.
Treatment typically includes the administration of bronchodilators and steroids to help reduce the number and severity of the attacks. Antibiotics may be prescribed if there is a secondary infection noted and your vet may also suggest the use of cough suppressants for prolonged, non-productive coughs. With prompt diagnosis and treatment, the prognosis for dogs with allergic bronchitis is good, especially when the irritant has been identified and removed.
Feline asthma is more often a chronic disease caused by an initial allergic bronchitis, pre-existing heart disease, parasites (including feline heartworm), and/or extreme stress.
The symptoms include persistent coughing and wheezing, gagging up foamy mucus, rapid, open-mouth breathing (often squatting with hunched shoulders and an extended neck), labored breath after exertion, and an overall lethargy and weakness.
More often found in female than males, asthma usually develops in young cats between the ages of 2 and 8 years old, with the Siamese and Himalyan breeds and breed mixes predisposed to contracting the illness.
Treatment of feline asthma, like that of canine asthma, revolves around the use of steroids, bronchodilators, and antibiotics to combat airway inflammation and infection, open up breathing passages, and modify the body’s immune response.
You can help prevent your cat from having an attack by routinely testing for parasites, reducing stress in your pet’s environment, avoiding cat litters that create a lot of dust (this includes scented litters), keeping your pet’s weight down and her body active, and not exposing your cat to cigarette smoke, perfumes, room fresheners, carpet deodorizers, hairspray, aerosol cleaners and other chemicals.
Visit your veterinarian immediately if you think your cat or dog has either allergies or asthma. Your vet will perform a physical examination and most likely recommend diagnostic tests to find out what’s causing the problem.
Does your pet suffer from allergies or asthma? We can help administer their medicine during our pet sitting visits. Contact us with any questions.