An allergy occurs when your cat’s immune system over-reacts to something that is usually harmless. Symptoms are commonly associated with skin irritation, and include scratching, a crusty rash and hair loss.
TYPES OF ALLERGIES IN CATS
The most common allergy in cats is flea allergy. Even if you don’t see any fleas on your feline family member, it’s still possible that fleas are responsible for his itching. The flea saliva is causing the allergic reaction and even just a few flea bites are enough to cause problems. An itchy cat tends to over groom and will remove many of the adult fleas, which makes them difficult to find.
Cats can also suffer from an allergic condition called atopy. This is an allergy to inhaled substances such as dusts and pollens. The tendency for cats to develop atopy is possibly inherited from their parents, but this has not yet been proven.
Food allergy is the third common allergy in our feline friends. They develop an allergy to an ingredient in their diet that they have been eating for some time, such as chicken, fish, corn or wheat.
DIAGNOSING ALLERGIES IN CATS
Your cat’s history of skin irritation, hair loss and crusty skin sores particularly around his neck and along his back will make your veterinarian suspicious of some sort of allergy. Some cats don’t show any skin redness, but instead just overgroom themselves, leaving bald patches with short stubby hairs.
Flea allergy can be diagnosed by checking for fleas or flea droppings on your cat, and using a reliable flea control product exactly as directed. If the skin irritation clears up, then you know that fleas have played a role in his problem.
Food allergies are a bit trickier. Because your cat has become sensitive to something he has been eating for a while, the only way to diagnose this condition is to feed him something he has never had before for 8 – 12 weeks. If his skin improves, then food is involved.
Atopy diagnosis usually relies on ruling out all other causes of itching, including flea and food allergy, mites and infection. This condition also tends to be seasonal at first and only occurs at certain times of the year. As your cat grows older though, it usually becomes a year-round problem.
TREATING ALLERGIES IN CATS
There are really only two ways of managing allergies in cats. The first is to avoid whatever is causing the reaction, and the second is to treat his body so that it no longer causes the allergy.
The first option works well for flea and food allergies, you veterinarian may suggest a prescription diet. However, aversion is not quite so good for atopy. Your unlikely to be able to keep your cat away from dusts and pollens in the environment, so you need to treat him to stop the allergic reaction.
This can be done in several ways. Medication such as antihistamines or corticosteroids can reduce allergies and may make your cat much more comfortable. Some drugs have side effects so you need to use them with guidance from your vet. As well as the risk of side effects, these drugs don’t solve the underlying problem so when medication is stopped, the skin irritation will return.
The best way to treat atopy is to identify exactly what your cat is allergic to with intradermal skin tests, and then formulate a desensitising injection for him. This contains very small amounts of the substances he reacts to. He will be given measured doses of this injection on a regular basis, which allows his body to learn to tolerate them. Up to 80% of cats will improve with desensitisation, but their allergy may not be completely resolved and they may need other treatment from time to time.
Other therapies that can help are oatmeal shampoos and conditioners (if your cat tolerates a bath), fish oil which contains omega fatty acids, and topical creams containing corticosteroids.
Allergies in cats are something you manage, rather than cure. Together with your vet, you can work out a treatment regime that works well for your cat. He’ll then be able to enjoy life without being tormented by itchy skin.