A closer look: Allergies in Cats
Allergies are a common condition in cats, and cause sufficient itch that interferes with quality of life and puts them at risk of secondary skin infections. Even though being itchy is not life-threatening, allergic cats require prompt veterinary care to diagnose any underlying conditions and start appropriate treatment for timely relief. Identifying the particular allergen causing the reaction and the best management strategy takes a significant amount of trial and error. With appropriate management, many cats have their symptoms reduced, however complete resolution is not expected. A cat with allergies is expected to develop symptoms any time it is exposed to its allergens if it is not on medication.
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Cats that are severely itchy often cause damage to their skin and ears. In some cases, an infection develops.
An underlying allergy condition is suggested any time a cat has recurrent ear or skin infections.
The risk factors for developing allergies are unclear, particularly in cats where breed predispositions are poorly defined, but a genetic link is suggested.
Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to foreign proteins in the environment. There are several categories of allergies distinguished by the source of the allergen and route of exposure.
The most common allergens in cats are:
- Dust mites
- Flea saliva
- Animal proteins in food
The most common symptom of allergies is itching (pruritus). The need to itch is often so severe that it interferes with the cat’s daily life. Signs of itchiness include:
- Excessive scratching
- Chewing or licking an area
- Rubbing on surfaces or rolling on the ground
Testing and diagnosis
There are many potential causes of itching in cats, which makes diagnosing allergies difficult. Many diagnostic tests are needed to rule out other causes of itch before a diagnosis of allergies is made. These tests include:
- Physical examination
- Testing for bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infections
- Skin biopsies
- Blood work
Some types of allergies follow trends regarding when symptoms begin or worsen. These trends often help categorize what type of allergy is occurring. Based on the type of allergy, a list of possible allergens is made. From there, specific testing of each allergen helps identify which allergen is causing the issue. These tests include:
- Food elimination trials
- Withdrawal testing
- Patch testing Intradermal allergy testing is available, and can be helpful in narrowing down a list of potential allergens. This process is similar to allergy testing in humans, where a small amount of allergen is injected into the skin and the injection site is monitored for an inflammatory response.
Steps to Recovery
In all species, allergies are generally managed, not treated. Some cats benefit from anti-itch medications. These medications do not treat the cause of itchiness, but instead interrupt the “itch signal” so the cat feels less itchy. Options for relieving the symptoms of allergies include allergy medications (pills and injectable) and steroids. Antihistamines are often not effective for relief of allergy symptoms in cats. The only potential cure for allergies is immunotherapy. In this treatment, a small amount of allergen is injected into the cat’s skin at regular intervals over a long period of time. After many injections, the immune system’s reaction to the allergen reduces. Immunotherapy often takes several months to a year to show an effect, and must be maintained for life in most cases. There is no cure for allergies, so they are considered to be a life-long condition. Many cats’ symptoms improve with appropriate management and medications, however complete resolution of symptoms is uncommon.
Allergies are not contagious. Since the root cause of allergies is unknown, it is not possible to prevent them, but reducing or eliminating exposure to known allergens is expected to resolve symptoms. Strategies to reduce exposure vary depending on the type of allergy. Examples include:
- Diet change
- Routine cleaning of the environment
- Washing bedding regularly
- Routine parasite control
- Air filtration to remove airborne allergens
Are Allergies in Cats common?
Allergies are common in cats. Flea allergy dermatitis is the most common type of allergy, and studies suggest this allergy is becoming more common.
- Environmental modification
- Anti-itch medications
- Allergen immunotherapy
- Dietary restriction