Any allergy sufferer will tell you how uncomfortable those allergies can be. But did you know that your cat can also suffer from allergies?
An allergy is a hypersensitivity to a substance that is otherwise considered harmless. Some of the most common allergens - those things that cause the reactions - include pollens, dust mites, molds, insect bites, fibers, foods and dander. The most common contact with allergens is through physical contact, inhalation (breathing in) or ingestion (eating). This contact causes the body's immune system to overreact and produce antibodies to attack the invading allergens. These can show up as skin and/or eye conditions, respiratory issues, or even gastrointestinal issues.
Allergies are an inherited trait and a lifelong condition because they are the result of an immune system imbalance. The tendency to develop allergies is a genetic trait. When one parent is allergic, there's an increased likelihood that his/her offspring will also be allergic. Allergies are not curable, but they can be managed with immunotherapy treatment, medications that treat symptoms and simple avoidance of the offending allergen.
Cats, just like people, can suffer allergic reactions to a wide variety of allergens. In fact, there are estimates that about 15% of cats suffer from one or more allergies. Research has shown that the immune system imbalance that causes allergies in humans is essentially the same in cats.
There are four known types of allergies in the cat: contact, flea, food, and inhalant. Each of these has some common expressions in cats, and each has some unique features. These allergies might be why your cat has itchy skin, respiratory problems, sneezing, or even vomiting and diarrhea, the latter being possible indications that your cat has a food allergy.
Contact allergies are the least common of the four types of allergies. They result in a local reaction to the skin. Examples of contact allergy include reactions to flea collars or to types of bedding, such as wool. If the cat is allergic to such substances, there will be skin irritation and itching at the points of contact. Removal of the contact irritant solves the problem. However, identifying the allergen can require some detective work.
Flea allergy is common in cats. A normal cat experiences only minor irritation in response to flea bites, often without any itching. The flea allergic cat, on the other hand, has a severe, itch-producing reaction when the flea's saliva is deposited in the skin. Just one bit causes such intense itching that the cat may severely scratch or chew itself, leading to the removal of large amounts of hair. There will often be open sores or scabs on the skin, allowing a secondary bacterial infection to begin. The most commonly involved area is over the rump (just in front of the tail). In addition, the cat may have numerous, small scabs around the head and neck. These scabs are called miliary lesions, a term which was coined because the scabs look like millet seeds.
The most important treatment for flea allergy is to get the cat away from all fleas. Therefore, strict flea control is the backbone of a successful treatment. Unfortunately, this is not always possible in warm and humid climates, where a new population of fleas can hatch out every 14-21 days. However, a topically applied monthly parasite treatment that covers fleas may kill fleas before they have a chance to bite your cat.
Inhalant allergies are the most common type to affect cats. Cats may be allergic to all of the same inhaled allergens that affect us. These include pollens, molds, mildew and the house dust mite. Many of these allergies occur seasonally, while others are with us all the time, such as molds, mildew and house dust mites. When humans inhale these allergies, we manifest the allergy as a respiratory problem, or hay fever. The cat's reaction, however, usually produces severe, generalized itching. In fact, the most common cause of itching in the cat is the inhalant allergy.
Most cats that have an inhalant allergy are allergic to several allergens. If the number is small and they are the seasonal type, itching may last for just a few weeks at a time during one or two periods of the year. If the number of allergens is large or they are present year-round, the cat may itch constantly.
The second most common type of allergy to affect cats is food allergies. Generally cats will develop allergies to food products they have eaten for a long time. The allergy most frequently develops to the protein component of the food; for example, beef, pork, chicken or turkey. A food allergy may produce any of the clinical signs previously discussed, including itching, digestive disorders, and respiratory distress.
Treating allergies depends on the type of allergy that the cat is suffering. As noted, the contact allergy is the easiest to treat, once determined, as it simply involves removing the offending item. Limiting exposure to fleas by keeping your cat inside and treating with a regular, monthly parasite control will help. Inhalant allergies may need to be treated with steroids to control seasonal outbreaks. Food allergies may require a specialized diet in order to prevent recurrance.
If you are concerned your cat may be suffering from an allergy, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to review and discuss your concerns.