Guest Blogger, Dr. Sara Skiwski Dvm, is a holistic and integrated vet who offers another approach to dealing with your dog's allergies. 

It is that time of year again – Spring, which means seasonal allergies…and not just for humans. Did you know that your pet can also suffer from seasonal allergies? Novartis Animal Health conducted a survey with pet owners and over half of the owners weren’t even aware that their fur-clad family members can also spend Spring feeling miserable thanks to environmental allergens and local pollens.

First let’s talk about pet allergies. Most itchy animals are allergic to something, be it food, plants in the environment or something else in their world such as dust, molds, or chemicals. The hard part is finding out what the allergy is and the even harder part is treating it.

There are two primary categories of allergies we see in pets:

  • Food allergies
  • Environmental allergies

If your furry family member gets itchy during Spring, Summer or Fall, they are probably reacting to seasonal environmental allergens. However, if the symptoms continue year-round with no waxing or waning of symptoms, it is likely the sensitivity is to something more constant in the environment or something in the diet. 

As always, there are some exceptions to the rule. Here in California, with our mild weather and no hard freeze in Winter, environmental allergens can build up and cause nearly year-round issues for our beloved pets. Also, seasonal allergies, when left unaddressed, can lead to year-round allergies. We will talk about this a little later.

So, what are the seasonal allergy signs to look for in our dogs? Unlike humans whose allergy symptoms seem to affect mostly the respiratory tract, seasonal allergies in dogs often take the form of skin irritation/inflammation – a condition called Allergic Dermatitis. 

In skin issue cases, the pet will be very itchy. Symptoms will include scratching excessively and may include biting or chewing at certain areas of the body. There may also be rubbing against vertical surfaces like furniture and sometimes the carpet. As the itch/scratch/chew cycle continues, the skin will become inflamed and tender to the touch. You may also see hair loss, open sores and scabbing. Hot spots can develop in dogs and are an area of inflamed infected skin that becomes overwhelmed by the dog’s natural bacteria of the skin. The skin will become very red and often there is hair loss and oozing with occasionally blood. Dogs with allergies also often have issues with ears being itchy and inflamed but not necessarily a lot of wax or debris. You may see some scratching at the ears and/or some head shaking with mild hair loss around the ears. If the allergy in the ear persists, you may get a bacterial or yeast infection in the ear. This is more common in chronic allergies. Lastly, a lot of dogs with seasonal allergies can have seasonal anal gland issues or itchy rear syndrome.

Don't let seasonal allergies become a year-round problem.

It's probably worth noting that allergic reactions are produced by the immune system. The way the immune system functions is a result of both genetics and the environment. Nature vs. Nurture. Let’s look at a typical case. A puppy starts showing mild seasonal allergy symptoms, for instance, a red tummy and mild itching in Springtime. Off to the vet! The treatment prescribed is symptomatic to provide relief such as a topical spray. The next year, when the weather warms up, the patient is back again- same symptoms but more severe this time. This time the dog has very itchy skin.  Again, the treatment is symptomatic – antibiotics, topical spray, (hopefully no steroids), until the symptoms resolve with the season change. Fast forward to another Spring… on the third year, the patient is back again but this year the symptoms last longer, (not just Spring but also through most of Summer and into Fall). By year five, all the symptoms are significantly worse and are occurring year-round. This is what happens with seasonal environmental allergies. The more your pet is exposed to the allergens they are sensitive to, the more the immune system over-reacts and the more intense and long-lasting the allergic response becomes.

What to do?

In my practice, I like to address the potential root cause at the very first sign of an allergic response. This allergic response is normally seen between the ages of 6-9 months old. I do this to circumvent the escalating response year after year. 

Since the allergen load your environmentally sensitive dog is most susceptible to is much heavier outdoors, I recommend two essential steps in managing the condition. They are vigilance in foot care as well as fur care. What does this mean? A wipe down of feet and fur, especially the tummy, to remove any pollens or allergens is key. This can be done with a damp cloth, but my favorite method is to get a spray bottle filled with Witch Hazel and spray these areas. First, spray the feet then wipe them off with a cloth, and then spray and wipe down the tummy and sides. This is best done right after the pup has been outside playing or walking. This will help keep your pet from tracking the environmental allergens into the home and into their beds. If the feet end up still being itchy, I suggest adding foot soaks in Epsom salts.

Because allergies are an immune system response, it's important to keep your pet's immune function optimal. This means avoiding unnecessary vaccinations and drugs. I never recommend you vaccinate your pet during a systemic inflammatory response. Vaccines are labeled for use in healthy pets only. The vaccine stimulates the immune system which is the last thing your pet with seasonal environmental allergies needs. I also will move the pet to an anti-inflammatory diet. Foods that create or worsen inflammation are high in carbohydrates. An allergic pet's diet should be very low in carbohydrates, especially grains. Research has shown that 'leaky gut,' or dysbiosis, is a root cause of immune system overreactions in both dog and cats (and some humans).

So what can be done? If you have a pet that is allergic to something you can not eliminate, are you faced with an impossible problem? No, there is hope. Remember that resolution of itching can take a long time. Many animals, especially the ones with severe skin disease, take up to a year to get better. Most animals, including humans, have some mild allergies or sensitivities. Most of the time we do not have any problems from them but, if we are suddenly exposed to everything we are allergic to all at once, or a very large amount of something we are allergic to, we will then have a reaction. This is because we only have a reaction if the inflammation in our body reaches a certain threshold. Below that threshold nothing really happens.

But, if it seems that your pet is allergic to everything and always itchy, where is the best place to start? First, check your pets diet. It is important to use a diet that reduces the inflammation in the body. This means feed a diet that is not processed or minimally processed. One that doesn’t have grain and takes a little longer to get absorbed and assimilated through the gut. Slowing the assimilation assures that there are not large spikes of nutrients and proteins that come into the body all at once and overtax the pancreas and liver creating inflammation. A lot commercial diets are too high in grains and carbohydrates. These foods create inflammation which overtaxes the body and leads to not just skin inflammation but also other inflammatory conditions such as colitis, pancreatitis, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and ear infections. Also, these diets are too low in protein, which is needed to make blood. This causes a decreased blood reserve in the body and in some of these animals this can leads to the skin not being properly nourished starting a cycle of chronic skin infections which produce more itching.

What is the next step? Make sure there are no fleas! These buggers make even the normal animals itchy but can quickly push an allergic animal over the edge. Once the diet and fleas have been addressed, the following are some of my favorite allergy supplements:

  • Raw Local Honey: This is one of my favorites. Referenced in many books, (including the Bible), raw honey benefits virtually everyone due to its unique chemical composition. Raw honey is honey that has not been heated, pasteurized or processed in any way. The differences between raw and pasteurized honey are substantial. Raw honey is an alkaline-forming food that contains natural vitamins, enzymes, powerful antioxidants and other important natural nutrients. These are the very nutrients that are destroyed during the heating and pasteurization process. In fact, pasteurized honey is equivalent to and just as unhealthy as eating refined sugar. Raw honey has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties. It promotes body and digestive health, is a powerful antioxidant, strengthens the immune system, eliminates allergies, and is an excellent remedy for skin wounds and all types of infections. Raw Honey contains bits and pieces of pollen and honey, and as an immune system booster, it is quite powerful. Honeybees will collect pollen from local plants and the pollen will be present in small amounts in honey that was gathered by bees that were working areas where these species are grow. When pets living in these same areas eat honey that was produced in that environment, the honey will often act as an immune booster. It may seem odd that straight exposure to pollen often triggers allergies but that exposure to pollen in the honey usually has the opposite effect. But this is typically what we see. In honey, the allergens are delivered in small, manageable doses and the effect over time is very much like that from undergoing a whole series of allergy immunology injections. The major difference though is that the honey is a lot easier to take and it is certainly a lot less expensive. But that is enough about Honey.
  • Mushrooms:  I love mushrooms! Mushrooms are an awesome adjunct to use for allergic pets, though most do not like them. Since dogs & cats can not tell the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms, they have a natural dislike for the taste. Medicinal mushrooms are used to treat and prevent a wide array of illnesses through their use as immune stimulants, immune modulators, adaptogens and antioxidants. Over thirty species are commonly used as medicinals in the form of mycelium or mushroom fruiting-body. The most well known and researched of these are reishi, maitake, cordyceps, blazei, split-gill, turkey tail and shiitake. Certain mushrooms, especially reishi, maitake and multi-mushroom blends, also dramatically increase the activity of natural killer cells and facilitate apoptosis of cancer cells resulting in the reduction of tumors. Macrophages and neutrophils will increase their levels of antimicrobial substances. But for allergies, what is most interesting, is that most medicinal mushrooms have an antihistamine action that can help control allergies. The mushrooms stabilize mast cell in the body- the cells that have the histamines attached to them. Histamine is what causes much of the inflammation, redness and irritation characteristic of an allergic response. By helping to control the histamine production, the mushrooms can at least moderate the effects of inflammation and could even help prevent allergies in the first place. ***Warning: Mushrooms can interact with some over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
  • Nettles: Stingy Nettles- the infamous weed! Nettle has been used for centuries to treat seasonal allergy symptoms. It contains biologically active compounds that reduce inflammation. Nettles have the ability to reduce the amount of histamine the body produces in response to an allergen. Nettle tea or extract can help with itching. Nettles not only help directly to decrease the itch but also work overtime to desensitize the body to allergens, helping to reprogram the immune system.
  • Quercetin: Quercetin is a bioflavonoid with anti-inflammatory properties and a strong antioxidant. It also does a great job suppressing histamines release from mast cells and basophils. Quercetin also has some other wonderful properties. It inhibits 5-lipo-oxygenase, an enzyme that increase the inflammatory cascade. Quercetin can inhibit the production of leukotrienes which is another way the body creates inflammation, and decreases the level of bronchoconstriction. Bronchoconstriction occurs in the lung fields as a symptom of asthma. Quercetin can actually suppress how much constriction occurs.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids help decrease inflammation throughout the body. Adding them into the diet of all pets — particularly pets struggling with seasonal environmental allergies – is very beneficial. If your dog or cat has more itching along the top of their back and on their sides, add in a fish oil supplement. Fish oil helps to decrease the itch and heal skin lesions. The best sources of Omega 3’s are krill oil, salmon oil, tuna oil, anchovy oil and other fish body oils as well as raw organic egg yolks. If using an oil alone, it is important to give a vitamin B complex supplement.
  • Coconut oil: I also like coconut oil for allergic pets. Dogs like it more than cats but some cats will eat it. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, which helps decrease the production of yeast, a common opportunistic infection. Using a fish body oil with coconut oil before inflammation flares up in your pet's body can help moderate or even suppress the inflammatory response. 

Above are but a few of the over-the-counter remedies I like. In non-responsive cases, Chinese herbs can be used to work with the body to help to decrease the allergy threshold even more than with diet and supplements alone. Most of the animals I work with are on a program of Chinese herbs, diet change and acupuncture.

So, the next time Fido is showing symptoms of seasonal allergies, consider rethinking your strategy to treat the root cause instead of the symptom.

Dr. Sara Skiwski

The Western Dragon