Cats commonly exhibit allergy symptoms such as itchy, flaky skin and gastrointestinal signs including chronic vomiting and diarrhea, making it difficult to distinguish the cause among the three most common allergies in pets: flea allergy dermatitis, environmental allergy and food allergy. Gastrointestinal symptoms may or may not accompany food allergies which sometimes manifest in the skin. One hallmark of food allergy regardless of presentation is that clinical signs present themselves year round.
Unlike humans, cats lack the ability to scratch their paws and instead resort to licking and biting them when they are itchy. There are two approaches to consider when caring for an itchy cat: Treat the underlying cause of the itch and treat any secondary infections that may have developed.
Like people, cats can have allergies, causing them to become itchy. We usually think of three types of allergies: flea allergy, food allergy or environmental allergy. Some cats are allergic to flea saliva, and it takes only one bite to set off them off and keep them itching for up to two weeks. The key to treating this allergy is avoiding contact with fleas, which is why most veterinarians recommend the use of regular monthly veterinary grade flea prevention year round when flea allergy is suspected.
Food allergies also sometimes occur in cats and can cause mild to severe itching (paws, face, and ears), red skin, hair loss or even gastrointestinal signs (chronic loose stool or vomiting). Environmental allergies cause similar signs, excluding the gastrointestinal ones. One key to helping differentiate between these two types of allergies is timeline. Food allergies will continue year round, whereas most environmental allergies improve or resolve at some points during the year (in other words, they can be seasonal, with the winter months often being the better months for affected cats). In the sub-tropical climate of Florida, however, it is not uncommon to see year round unrelentingly allergic cats.
Many times, an opportunistic secondary infection (bacterial. yeast. or both) has developed because the biting and licking has damaged the skin. If your cat is constantly licking or biting his paws or other regions of the skin, he should be evaluated by one of our veterinarians, because it can be a painful condition and these infections need to be treated with oral or injectable medications (antibiotics or antifungals), with medicated spray and conditioners, or with both. Then the underlying allergy also must be addressed to prevent recurrence.
A food trial is needed to determine a food allergy, as blood testing for food allergies in cats is generally regarded as inaccurate. This involves feeding your cat a very strict diet over several months with protein sources he has never been exposed to. At Maybeck Animal Hospital, our preference is a diet where the proteins are broken down into their tiny molecular components called amino acids. In this form, the cat’s body will get all the protein it needs for adequate tissue building and metabolic processes without any potential for adverse reactivity. One of our veterinarians can help you plan a proper food trial to determine if your cat has a food allergy, then once confirmed, help to determine what food he should be fed on a long-term basis.
Environmental allergies can be treated with different medications. Some cats with mild allergies or allergies that last only a few weeks or months each year can be treated with antihistamines like Zyrtec and nutritional therapy with omega-3-fatty acid supplements derived from fish oils. Some cats require more aggressive medications that actually suppress the immune system such as different forms of cortisone. However, it is not advisable to treat cats with cortisones long term because of the potential for negative side effects. Premier Veterinary Care offers safer medication options when long term care is necessary, such as Atopica.
Skin testing or blood testing is available and can determine what things in the environment are triggering the allergies. This information is used to formulate allergy serum that is administered orally on a regular basis, which desensitizes your cat to the allergens. This process can take several months to a year to start working and will require lifelong use. Premier Veterinary Care is fully equipped to administer state of the art allergy testing.
Allergies in cats are frustrating because many cases are not definitively cured and require lifelong management to varying degrees. One of our veterinarians will discuss allergy management options for your cat that best fit your lifestyle and budget.