Allergies in Cats: How to Care for Your Feline Companion

Even though cats are (from a personality perspective) in a class by themselves, they can have allergies just like humans. Similar to humans who suffer from allergy attacks, cats may develop allergies at any age when their immune systems become sensitive to a particular substance, known as an allergen.

Because there are so many possible triggers in your pet’s surroundings, figuring out the root cause of your cat’s allergies is a key piece of information when determining a proper diagnosis and course of treatment. Although there are medications available for severe cases, it’s worth exploring all of your options and discovering ways you can improve your cat’s surroundings.

From natural and homeopathic supplements to practicing good grooming and hygiene, you can take proactive measures in an attempt to avoid known allergens while minimizing his or her symptoms.

Recognizing The Signs of an Allergic Reaction in Cats

If you’re noticing your cat is scratching himself a lot, sneezing, wheezing or is even experiencing digestive issues, he may have feline allergies. Many pet owners find themselves asking the same question: why does my cat have allergies?

To break it down to its most simplistic explanation, your cat’s body is trying to rid itself of the offending substance(s), and as a result, he may display a variety of different symptoms. Although these allergens may not cause any irritation to a cat free of allergies, cats who experience allergic reactions are hypersensitive to certain substances in their surroundings.

Therefore, if you believe your cat may be having an allergy attack, it’s important to bring him to your veterinarian right away for a complete medical examination.

Here is a partial list of general symptoms to be aware of if you suspect your cat may have allergies:

  • Chronic ear infections
  • Diarrhea, vomiting or other digestive/gastrointestinal disorders
  • Excessive sneezing, coughing (if your cat has asthma) and/or wheezing
  • Hair loss/excessive shedding or missing patches of fur
  • Heavy snoring (usually the result of an inflamed throat)
  • ‘Hot spots’ on the skin (known as pyoderma)
  • Itchy back or base of tail (commonly associated with flea allergies)
  • Itchy, watery and/or runny eyes
  • Paw chewing/swollen, sensitive or tender paws

Some of the allergens that can cause these symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Certain cat litters
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Cleaning products
  • Colognes and perfumes
  • Fabrics (such as wool or cotton)
  • Fleas or flea-control products
  • Food substances
  • Mold and mildew
  • Plants, grasses, trees, flowers, pollen and weeds
  • Prescription medications
  • Rubber or petroleum-based materials such as plastic

What to Expect at The Vet’s Office

For pet parents, few things are worse than seeing their cats or dogs not feeling well. If you notice that your cat is uncomfortable and might be suffering from any of the types of allergies outlined, be sure to schedule an appointment as soon as possible. Your vet will do a complete history and physical exam, including bloodwork, skin tests, or other tests as deemed necessary.

He may recommend a dietary change or elimination diet, or refer you to a veterinary dermatologist if he or she believes your cat has a chronic skin allergy. In the case of FAD, practicing good hygiene with your cat (including frequent grooming and inspecting his coat) can help prevent future infestations. Talk to your vet about possible forms of flea prevention treatments, products, and methods.

In the instance that your cat has environmental allergies, it’s essential to identify triggers so that you can remove them from your surroundings, or at the very least protect your cat from frequent or prolonged exposure.

Types of Cat Allergies: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

As you may have guessed, there are a broad array of allergens both indoors and outdoors. In the case of cat allergies, experts have divided them into three main categories: flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), food allergies, and environmental allergies (clinically known as atopic dermatitis).

Similar to the type of human allergies that cause ‘hay fever’ symptoms, environmental allergies are the most common of the three. However, cats often experience multiple allergies, so a complete medical exam by your vet can pinpoint what type of allergy your kitty suffers from. In severe cases, your vet may even refer your cat to a veterinary dermatologist for skin conditions associated with chronic feline allergies.

Food Allergies

If you believe your cat has a food allergy, it’s crucial to contact your vet right away, as his diet will have to be altered temporarily until the food allergen is determined. In most cases, your vet will advise an elimination diet, which basically requires you to stop feeding your cat his regular food and reintroduce different types of food one at a time in order to figure out what foods are well-tolerated and which ones aren’t.

You may need to cook your cat bland homemade foods; your veterinarian can advise you on the appropriate diet guidelines for this phase of allergy testing. Cats have been commonly known to have a food sensitivity to commercial pet foods that contain soy, dairy and fish, as well as some dairy and wheat products.

Because outdoor cats are exposed to a much greater range of potential plant-and organically-based allergens, it’s important to mention to your vet if your cat spends anytime outdoors. Some specific tell-tale signs that your cat may have a food allergy include scratching at the neck and head, as well as loose bowel movements (diarrhea) and symptoms of nausea or vomiting.

Once you and your vet have identified the known food allergen, be sure to read all labels carefully for all processed food and treats to be sure they’re free of any trace of the offending substance. In addition, your vet may prescribe a specially-formulated cat food or suggest dietary supplements to aide in his allergic condition and overall health.

It’s also important to note that overweight or obese cats are more prone to asthma and respiratory disorders, so developing a regular eating routine and monitoring your cat’s diet under the supervision of your vet can vastly improve his quality (and even longevity) of life.

Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD)

Characterized by seasonal allergies that are at their worst during peak flea times (summer and fall), flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is an allergic skin condition that occurs when your pet is bitten by a flea. Even in regions where the weather is mild or in the case where you have a flea infestation in your home, the symptoms of flea bites are the most severe in fall and summer.

The actual itchiness that your cat endures is not due to the bite itself, but the saliva found at the site of the flea bite. Even if you only find a few fleas on your feline companion, it only takes a couple of bites to make your kitty absolutely miserable.

Signs that your cat may have FAD include biting at the base of the tail and frequent scratching. Other characteristic indicators include a loss or thinning of hair/fur at the base of the tail. Another tell-tale sign: flea ‘dirt’, which is another term for flea feces: you can tell if it’s actual dirt or fecal matter when it’s moistened, as it will turn a reddish color (this is because it’s mostly digested blood matter).

Other common symptoms include symmetrical hair loss (alopecia), eosinophilic plaques, linear granulomas, and miliary dermatitis, which is expressed by crusty papules (small, raised skin lesions that are typically red or pinkish in color). In order to diagnose your cat, your vet may do a complete physical assessment, including intradermal skin testing.

Once it has been determined he suffers from FAD, he may prescribe topical and/or oral medications to reduce and heal existing symptoms. However, it is imperative to treat your home environment as well, including the indoor and outdoor areas your cat frequents; this also includes his sleeping area (and yours if he sleeps in bed with you), as well as furnishings and carpeted areas.

Other pets in your home must be assessed and treated as advised by your vet, as they are also possible carriers. A thorough cleaning of the house is required, including vacuuming and adequate disposal of all vacuumed waste materials. You may also wish to use a flea powder as directed by your vet.

The safest and most effective method against fleas is prevention: discuss an annual flea and tick-proofing plan with your veterinarian to avoid future infestations.

Environmental Allergies

Even though environmental allergies are more frequently seen in dogs than in cats, there are some felines who suffer from this chronic allergy condition. Although it is manageable, it is a lifelong condition and must be maintained on a routine basis to ensure your cat’s optimal comfort and quality of life.

As discussed earlier, environmental allergies are typically caused by a number of indoor and outdoor triggers, including dust mites, mold spores, animal dander, and airborne pollen. Experts also believe that this condition may be passed on genetically. Clinically referred to as atopic dermatitis (or atopy), this type of feline allergy manifests itself as an extremely itchy and unpleasant skin condition.

Consequently, cats who suffer from it will show signs of excessive scratching, grooming, or biting at the skin, often to the point of baldness. The physical areas most prone to irritation include the eyes, ears, muzzle, toes, wrists/ankles, underarms, and groin. Some cats will bite or groom themselves so excessively that it may lead to bleeding, open sores, or wounds that can potentially become infected. Therefore, it is essential to see your vet as soon as possible to provide your pet with relief and a comprehensive course of treatment.

In addition to a complete physical and medical history, your vet may run an intradermal allergy test to diagnose the potential allergens. Once your cat’s physician has determined the allergen, he will prescribe medications including topical, oral, and over-the-counter treatments. It’s also necessary to follow up with regular check-ups to track your cat’s prognosis and see if the therapy is working.

You may also wish to discuss homeopathic or at-home treatments to further ease your cat’s discomfort, including medicated baths such as shampoos that contain colloidal oatmeal or eucalyptus oil to relieve itchy, dry, or inflamed skin. If your cat experiences severe symptoms, such as open sores, he will require vet-supervised treatment to avoid the complications of a bacterial infection of the skin.

Preventative Measures & Helpful Tips for Cat Allergies: Q&A

Moving forward, one of the most effective methods of treating your cat’s allergy symptoms is an ounce of prevention. Here are a few commonly-asked questions for cat owners:

How can I effectively treat my cat’s allergies?

Although pet owners are not able to completely protect their beloved kitties from every offending substance, it’s beneficial if you can remove (or greatly reduce exposure to) the known allergens, particularly those found indoors.

Being a proactive pet owner can go a long way in ensuring your cat’s wellbeing and level of comfort. In the case of flea allergy dermatitis, implement a flea control program under your vet’s supervision to prevent infestation. For cats who suffer from environmental allergies, opt for high-quality litter (ones that are unscented and dust-free are preferred), practice regular cleaning routines around the house to avoid dust and debris which may aggravate his condition, and if possible, bathe your cat often (or bring to a groomer).

For cats who have food allergies, your vet can design a specific dietary regiment based on your pet’s particular needs.

Do feline allergies affect my cat’s asthma?

In the instance where your cat suffers from environmental allergies, it may potentially worsen his preexisting asthma. Therefore, you will want to discuss and explore your options with your vet to determine the best course of action for your cat.

Keeping your home as free of dust, dander, and debris can help protect your cat against allergy and asthma attacks. In addition, never smoke indoors if your cat suffers from either condition.

Are there medications for feline allergies?

While there may be extreme allergies that warrant medication, it’s important to discuss all of your options with your vet before determining a course of therapy, particularly with regard to the possible side-effects of drugs. Depending on the type of allergy your cat has and the severity of his condition, your vet may recommend natural or over-the-counter products, holistic treatment methods, products that are safe for both your cat and the environment, or simple things you can do at home to make your pet more comfortable.

In addition, you may wish to discuss certain cat supplements and treats to support optimal health. No matter what decision you make, remember: never administer any medication to your pet before consulting first with your veterinarian.

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