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Everything You Need To Know About Cat Allergies

It’s hard to see a pet suffer from a horrible itch. Unlike with humans, you can’t explain what’s happening to them, and it’s hard to ask what they’ve been doing that might have set it off. With cats it’s especially difficult, since sometimes the first thing you’ll notice is a scary looking scab. Thankfully, most allergies are rarer in cats than humans, and are manageable with long-term treatment. If you’re worried your cat is having an allergic reaction, here’s what to look for, and what treatment might end up looking like.

Allergic reactions in cats most often show up as scabby skin, crusty eyes and face, breathing problems, or unusual swelling. If your pet has any of these issues, allergies might be at play. But first things first: All diagnoses and treatment should be done in conjunction with your vet. Don’t try and diagnose and treat anything without having an expert’s advice - though you might think it’s allergies it doesn’t mean it for sure, so always check with your vet first.


Causes of Skin Allergies in Cats

There are four major causes of allergic reactions in cats: fleas, foods, inhalant/seasonal, and contact - of these, fleas are the most common. A flea allergy is different from your cat just scratching at a flea bite; instead, it’s a reaction that can cause itching across their entire body. As veterinary dermatologist Dr. Millie Rosales, explained to me, tick allergies are by far the most common allergy type she sees - and more than a little preferable to other types, because ticks are directly and easily treatable.

The other three types are closely linked to exposure to the allergen, and it’s generally a matter of treating the symptoms as you can, attempting to keep your cat away from whatever’s setting them off, and potentially seeking long term treatment like immunotherapy.


Symptoms of Cat Allergies

There are a surprising number of symptoms that are often seen with allergic reactions in cats - though it can be tricky to pin down a single symptom as a definitive indicator. There’s a long list of potential symptoms according to vet Dr. Erica Hess. Dr. Hess advises to look for “scratching (especially around the face/neck), hair loss, inflamed skin, overgrooming (especially the abdomen), skin lesions such as small red bumps (“papules”), pimple-like lesions (“pustules”), excoriations, crusts, lesions affecting the lips or oral cavity, and chin acne.”

Many of the symptoms we associate with allergies in cats come from “atopic dermatitis”, which is like the kitty version of eczema, essentially red and itchy skin. In cats, this presents commonly as “miliary dermatitis” - this is where a cat gets so itchy that they lick and scratch their skin to the point of causing little scabs to form. If you’ve ever been groomed by your cat, you know how scratchy their tongues can be; and so if they’re licking at one spot trying to get at that itch, it’s no wonder the skin would break and scab over.

Cats may also show “self-inflicted alopecia”: areas of skin they’ve made bald by over-aggressive licking. Dr. Rosales told me that pet owners may have the common misconception that cats licking themselves bald may be due to stress or other behavioural issues, but she explained that’s true for “a very small percent” of cases and “the majority of the time it’s because they have an allergy.” So if your cat is licking themselves to the point of hair loss - get them to a vet.

Allergies can also cause your cat to have mouth ulcers and respiratory issues like coughing, sneezing, or wheezing. Dr. Hess also made sure to add this reminder: “Many of these symptoms can be seen with a number of other conditions, and a thorough patient history along with a complete physical check-up by a vet is crucial.”

If you have any questions, you can speak to a veterinary expert here.


Diagnosis of Cat Allergies

Many of the symptoms associated with cat allergies can also be caused by other issues like fungal infections, bacterial infections, or parasites. So, if you suspect your pet is having an allergic reaction... talk to your vet. Dr. Rosales pointed out that if your cat tests negative for those problems, chances are allergies are the culprit.

Because cats can show allergic reactions several different ways, it can be hard to pin down the exact cause. And the site where a cat is having a reaction isn’t as closely linked to what set them off as it is in other animals, like dogs. Like with humans, your vet may give your cat a skin pinprick test where they inject tiny amounts of allergens and see how much your skin bumps - but Dr. Rosales told me that since cats have such thin skin, it may be difficult to test them accurately this way, and a vet may also do a blood test for more information.

It may take several attempts for your vet to correctly identify what’s causing the allergic reactions, but it’s a process. Give it time, and work through all the steps so that you can all be sure and treat the issue properly.


Treatment for Cat Allergies

Treatment for a cat’s skin allergies will depend on what’s causing them and should be undertaken with advice from your vet.


Flea Allergy Treatment

For allergies related to fleas, the first step is usually aggressive flea protection for cats. If you’re not already using flea meds, this is the time to introduce them (speak to your vet for recommendations), or if you are, to consider using multiple forms of flea protection to really keep their numbers down. And do a deep flea cleaning of your pet and your home. And if your cat rarely ventures outside and is more of an indoor cat, don’t think your household is immune to fleas. As Dr. Rosales puts it, “[Fleas] are very sneaky, and they move very fast so they’re really hard to spot.” A small number of fleas can be hard to see, as your cat may be even catching them while grooming, but there may still be enough around to cause the allergic reaction. A flea comb for cats can often be quite effective for those suffering from the pests.


Miliary Dermatitis Treatment

For cats with miliary dermatitis, your best bet is to treat the underlying condition, and with time the skin issues should fade. However, allergies are a lifetime issue, and if you’re not able to cut out the offending allergen, as with tick and food allergies, then you’re looking at long term treatment options. Steroids and cyclosporine are useful in the short term, but as vet Dr. Eckholm explains, they have long term issues, with the former potentially leading to diabetes and the latter being an immunosuppressant. She told me that immunotherapy is the safest long term treatment option for your pet, and that she’s seen a 70% success rate with it. As she put it, good allergy management still allows your “cat to be a cat” without you attempting to control everything they come in contact with.

Though if you are doing immunotherapy, you’re probably in for the long haul. Your cat will be looking at regular injections (though our feline friends tend to have fewer issues with this over mouth drops or other oral medication), and it can take a year to see success. However, for most cats success does happen, and it prevents allergies from worsening.

You can also help your cat by limiting airborne allergens through regular vacuuming, and running dehumidifiers and air filters. However, we track pollen in and out with us when we enter and leave the house, so it’s almost impossible to truly keep your cat away from airborne allergies.


Food Allergy Treatment

Food-based allergies are a complex enough topic to warrant an entire piece on their own, but suffice to say: Talk to your vet and work on putting together an elimination diet where you can narrow down the allergen and remove it from your pet’s food supply. Once you know the culprit, it should be fairly easy to remove from their diet.


Contact Allergy Treatment

Contact allergies are the least common and may come from bedding, collars, skin treatments, or plants your pet comes in contact with. It can be tricky to pin down exactly where the offending item is, but when you do, it’s generally straightforward to prevent your cat from getting in contact with it.

No matter what the cause, dealing with cat allergies is an ongoing process, and something that will most likely be a worry over the life of your cat. Thankfully, with smart treatment and a lot of love from you and your vet, chances are your cat will be just fine.

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Written by:
Tim Barribeau
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