The incessant jingle of your pet’s collar snaps you awake at 3 a.m. As soon as you drift back to sleep, your pet begins again, scratching in earnest. 

Shake, scratch, jingle, shake. 

You finally remove their collar, or kick them out of the bedroom, to get some peace and quiet, and some sleep.

If this sounds familiar, you need to visit your family veterinarian to find out if your pet has allergic skin disease. Determining the itch behind their scratching is the only way to bring your pet some much-needed relief—and let you get back to sleep. 

What is allergic skin disease in pets?

Allergic skin disease is an umbrella term for several conditions affecting pets. Skin issues are among the most commonly diagnosed problems at veterinary hospitals, likely because allergens are everywhere. The three most common forms of allergic skin disease include:

  • Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) — Pets with a flea allergy react to the saliva in a flea bite.
  • Atopic dermatitis (i.e., environmental allergies) — This skin disease includes airborne allergens, such as pollen, dust, mold, and grasses.
  • Food allergies — Pets may be sensitive to the protein, or less commonly, carbohydrates in their diet.

All three diseases can make your pet completely miserable, and only a veterinary diagnosis and targeted therapy will alleviate their discomfort. Allergic pets may be sensitized to more than one allergen, making a veterinary examination crucial, rather than you trying to guess their allergy trigger yourself.

What is an allergy in pets?

Allergies are hypersensitivity reactions by the immune system to an allergen your pet encounters. The allergen can range from the protein in a flea’s saliva, to tree pollen, to dust mites. Unlike humans with allergies, who suffer mostly respiratory problems, dogs and cats manifest their allergies through the skin, as intense and persistent itchiness and irritation. 

Atopic dermatitis (i.e., environmental allergies) typically begin in early life, while food allergies—which are not as common as many believe—can occur at any time. Environmental allergies can be seasonal if your pet improves during the winter, but are likely caused by an indoor allergen if they suffer year-round. 

How will I know if my pet has allergies?

Allergy signs in pets aren’t subtle, although they can be mistaken for normal pet behavior. Excessive scratching, grooming, and obsessive or repetitive actions are not typical, and always indicate that your pet needs a trip to the veterinarian. Allergy signs in pets include:

  • Scratching
  • Chewing and biting
  • Licking
  • Rubbing the face or body on furniture or carpet
  • Head shaking
  • Hair loss 
  • Excessive grooming
  • Scooting

The area affected can provide clues to your pet’s allergy cause.

  • Environmental — Environmental allergies tend to appear as irritation on the face, groin, axillary (i.e., armpit) area, and abdomen.
  • Food — While pets with food allergies are mostly bothered by chronic ear issues, they may also chew their feet, or scoot on their hind end to alleviate anal sac inflammation or impaction.
  • Fleas —  Flea allergies classically appear as hair loss and irritation at the pet’s tail base, and along the back legs.

How are allergies in pets diagnosed?

Your regular veterinarian will examine your pet carefully from nose to tail, looking for external parasites, damaged skin, missing hair, infection, and inflammation. They will also ask specific questions about your pet’s environment, behavior, parasite prevention, and diet. Additional testing may include: 

  • Skin scraping — A skin scrape may be performed to look for mange mites.\
  • Skin cytology — Infected or inflamed skin samples may be evaluated to look for bacteria.
  • Allergy testing — This is typically performed by a dermatologist, who places a grid of tiny inoculations under the skin, to identify your pet’s allergens based on their reaction.
  • Skin biopsy — If allergy testing is inconclusive, a punch biopsy may be recommended.
  • Food trials — Food allergies are diagnosed and treated with a diet change. To eliminate reactivity, the food must be made with a novel protein or hydrolyzed—a process that breaks the protein down to prevent a reaction.

Are pet allergies treatable?

Once the allergy cause is identified, many helpful treatments can provide relief for your pet. Unfortunately, environmental allergies, since they are inescapable, require lifelong management. 

Your veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist will work with you to devise a treatment plan that works for you and your pet. Effective treatment typically includes several approaches, to relieve pet discomfort and minimize exposure, including:

  • Medication Medications may include a short course of steroids for fast inflammation relief, antibiotics to treat secondary infections, and allergy medications to block specific receptors and reduce the need to scratch.
  • Immune-therapy — Dermatologists can design custom “allergy shots” that desensitize pets to their allergens.
  • Parasite prevention — All pets should receive veterinarian-prescribed flea and tick prevention year-round. Flea and tick preventives not only reduce the likelihood for FAD, but also are effective against microscopic mites that can cause intense itching and irritation.
  • Medicated baths and wipes — Use these to soothe your pet’s irritated skin, and remove airborne allergens from their coat.
  • Environmental control — Regular vacuuming, laundering, dusting, and air-vent cleaning may help with indoor allergies.
  • Limited ingredient diets — Once a feeding trial has pinpointed a specific allergen, that protein or ingredient must be avoided in food, treats, and chews.

Allergic skin disease in pets can disrupt their daily routine and significantly impact their quality of life. Soothe your pet’s itch by visiting your family veterinarian, to determine what’s at the root of their misery. 

However, if your pet is experiencing an allergy emergency, you need the best 24/7 animal emergency hospital in Spokane. Visit or call the Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center day or night for all your pet’s critical care needs.