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Atopic dermatitis (AD) is the term used to describe environmental (indoor and/or outdoor) allergies. It is a common problem in dogs and cats that can cause a significant amount of misery in affected animals. Allergies are unlikely to be cured, but with a thorough investigation including diagnostics, proper treatments and owner compliance, allergies can be managed. Proper management can make an animal very comfortable and allow it to live a normal quality of life. In addition to traditional injectable immunotherapy (allergy shots), oral immunotherapy is now an option.
But before we discuss treatments, let’s first take a quick look at what we know about allergies and atopic dermatitis in pets.
Common allergens that cause AD include tree, grass and weed pollens; human and animal danders; storage and dust mites; mold spores, wool, dust and insects. These allergic substances are usually absorbed through the skin but can also be inhaled. Unlike humans, animals rarely have a runny nose, tearing eyes or respiratory signs. Instead, allergies in pets are usually expressed in the skin, and affected animals will itch, lick and/or chew themselves. The skin may be red, irritated or thickened from the chronic trauma and left susceptible to secondary infection. The ears may be affected as well. These allergies may start at any age, but they usually develop within the first three years of life or after a recent relocation/move. Allergies may start as a seasonal problem, but then can develop into an all-year-round issue. Atopic dermatitis is a heritable disease and is more commonly reported in certain breeds of dogs (e.g., terriers) and cats (e.g., Abyssinians).
Animals diagnosed with AD may be pruritic (itchy) in many regions of their body. The main areas affected include the feet (between the toes), ears, groin, armpits, legs, under the neck and the abdominal area. One or all regions may be affected. Atopic (allergic) animals usually have seasonal itchiness, but this may progress to a year-round concern. The ears may also be affected and can become itchy, red, painful, and malodorous with excessive debris and wax buildup. Clinical signs may wax and wane on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis as different things in the environment are exposed to the pet. The clinical signs are due to a certain threshold of allergens that, once reached, causes flare-ups. Secondary bacterial and yeast skin infections are very common and can become a recurrent problem.
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