Integrative Pet Vet column: The allergic cat
Integrative Pet Vet
Cats with allergies can scratch and chew themselves to the point of creating open wounds in the skin. They can be miserable, along with their human companions, who are striving to alleviate the itching.
Allergies are a trigger for itching in the cat just as they are in the dog. However, some cats with allergies have coughing and sneezing but are not itchy. Itching is not always caused by allergies. The presence of skin infections from bacteria, yeast or fungal infections like ringworm can cause itching. Some cats that are not itchy can lick and groom excessively because they have a psychogenic drive created by stress.
Allergies in cats are not as well understood as allergies in dogs. Since the signs can mimic other diseases, it can be challenging to diagnose and to manage allergies. The most common skin disease in cats in the U.S. is a flea allergic dermatitis (skin inflammation). Cats with a flea infestation are generally scratching and chewing. While elimination of the fleas is the most effective treatment, elimination of fleas is not always easy.
The relative difficulty depends on the part of the country you reside in and how severe the flea problem is there. Fortunately, fleas are very uncommon in our area, which reduces the likelihood that cats here are itchy because of fleas.
The second most common allergy problem in cats is an inhalant allergy resulting in feline asthma. These cats exhibit allergic reactions to inhaled allergens. This results in coughing, wheezing, gagging and breathing difficulty that can become an emergency.
An estimated 5 percent of cats are affected with an average age of onset of 4-5 years. When these cats inhale an allergen to which they are sensitive, the immune system reacts resulting in allergic reactions that can cause swelling of the airway. This reduces the cat’s ability to breath. Mucus accumulation can make the problem worse.
Diagnosis is based on the health history, physical examination and chest X-rays. Blood tests, allergy testing and evaluation of the airway secretions may also be needed. It is important to rule out other causes of breathing issues such as chronic bronchitis, parasite problems and infections leading to pneumonia because treatments for asthma may make these problems worse. Unfortunately feline asthma is a progressive problem that can have occasional flare-ups. It is not considered a curable problem, so it has to be managed with the goal of reducing the frequency and the severity of flare-ups.
Allergy to food ingredients is the third most common allergy problem in cats. Food allergies can result in itching, chewing and scratching, but it can take other forms. Some cats have sores in the lip or along the back of the hind leg. There may be problems with gingivitis and severe oral issues. Other cats have a poor hair coat, hair loss, skin lesions, food avoidance and weight loss.
Generally, the food allergy problem evolves over an extended time. Only 10-15 percent of cats with food allergies have signs of stomach or intestine reactions like vomiting and diarrhea. Cats of any age can be affected. Ideally, the offending food ingredient would be eliminated from the diet, and the allergy signs resolve. It can be challenging to identify the offending ingredient, and it has been reported that use of foods with limited antigens can give unclear results.
Some advocate a home-prepared diet so that all ingredients are known. Feeding trials are done for 8–12 weeks to assess the response. The offending ingredient is reintroduced to see if the allergy signs recur. This gives proof that a food allergy is the cause of the allergy signs.
From an integrative management perspective, allergies represent a dysregulated immune reaction. Steps should be taken to avoid the allergen, such as careful food changes or eliminating offending inhaled allergens like dust from cat litter.
The lining of the respiratory tract and intestinal tract should be supported in an effort to limit allergen entrance into the tissues and contact with the immune cells. Probiotics can be helpful for immune regulation. Addressing the allergic inflammation can also be helpful. In some situations like a severe asthmatic episode, emergency medications are necessary and can be used along with the long-term supportive approaches.
If you have questions about allergies in cats, contact your veterinarian.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.
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