While most people don’t associate South Florida with seasons, there is one in particular that is currently plaguing both pets and people - allergy season! The longer days cause our plants and trees to burst into bloom. While it’s great for the environment and its wild inhabitants, the resulting pollen can wreak havoc on pets - even the ones who don’t spend much time outdoors.
Mango flowers are especially problematic at this time of the year. When placed under a microscope, a small sample of mango pollen looks like a cluster of barbed wire. It is estimated that one in five South Floridians are allergic to mango pollen, and for many more, it acts as an irritant. The bark and leaves of mango trees, as well as the skin covering the fruit, contains urushiol, the same naturally occurring irritant found in poison ivy and poison oak. In short, while the fruit is delicious, the tree from which it comes can cause both people and pets to suffer from allergies during this time of the year.
At the risk of sounding like we are picking on mangoes, they are far from the only culprit. Mid-December through Spring boasts the highest pollen counts from trees such as oak, juniper, bald cypress and Australian pine. Pollen is in our environment all year round, and when the summer rains begin, mold becomes a problem as well. Most South Floridians have St. Augustine grass, and while this does not produce much pollen, the thick turf harbors mold spores that become airborne when the grass is mowed.
Many pet owners are surprised to learn that animals can suffer from allergies. The environmental allergens that make us sneeze can make our dogs and cats itch. While we don’t see clinical signs like sneezing and runny noses in dogs and cats, scratching can become almost constant. We often see pets that have damaged the top layer of skin due to excessive scratching. This can easily become a source of infection, or an invitation to opportunistic parasites such as sarcoptic mange and ringworm. Pets can also damage their eyes in the course of scratching or rubbing their faces. Other secondary problems can include ear infections (as pets scratch itchy ears with pollen-covered feet), lack of appetite, and changes in behavior. Many pets will exhibit self-mutilating behaviors like pulling out their own fur, or obsessively licking one particular part of the body. These behaviors are often dismissed as “neurotic”, “OCD” or simply “crazy”, when in fact, your pet may be attempting to self-medicate.
Pets suffering from allergies may be less tolerant to changes in the environment or to highly stimulating activities if they do not feel well. Most humans with allergies will sheepishly admit that they are more likely to bite someone’s head off when their allergy symptoms are in full swing. The same is true of our pets. Allergy symptoms can make them irritable and short-tempered.
As is the case with human medicine, there are several options for treating allergies. Oral antihistamines are available for pets, but these are not always effective. Never dose pets with antihistamines intended for humans without first consulting your veterinarian - not Dr. Google! Some of these products contain decongestants and/or artificial sweeteners, both of which can be fatal to our pets. Low-dose steroid therapy is effective for occasional flare-ups, but long-term steroid use has been linked to kidney failure and diabetes. Topical sprays can be applied to the affected area, but these too may only provide short term relief.
For pets with persistent allergies, I almost always recommend allergy testing. Unlike the arduous scratching and pricking we may have endured as kids, this is now done by taking a blood sample. An outside lab tests the sample for allergens in both food and the environment. Tests are region-specific, so pets living in Arizona will not be tested for the same environmental allergens as pets living in Miami. We base the next step of the plan on the results of that test.
For instance, Grendel, our older dog did not have many environmental allergies. She was, however, allergic to just about everything we were feeding her! By removing those allergens from her diet, we were able to strengthen her immune system enough to deal with the allergens in her environment. We also found she was allergic to cotton and wool. We changed her beds and blankets to acrylic fleece, and no further treatment was necessary.
Our younger dog, Zohan, however, is basically allergic to the planet! The next step for him was to have the same lab prepare a serum containing trace amounts of the allergens in his profile. This used to be given in the form of injections, but giving injections proved challenging for many owners. Some of the injections were painful, and allergic reactions were sometimes observed. The delivery method has since come a long way. The serum is now given by mouth. It’s dispensed in a little pump bottle that simply hooks over the lower mandible. As seen in the photograph, two little presses, and we’re done. Most owners report that their pets do not mind the taste, and some claim their pets seem to enjoy it. We have found this to be a very effective way of managing seasonal allergies in both dogs and cats. For pet owners who may be unable to do this, we often recommend more frequent bathing, or simply wiping their feet with a moistened cloth whenever they come in from the outdoors.
Some of the behaviors associated with allergies may persist as a force of habit. This can be alleviated by working with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who will help you teach your dog how to replace unwanted behaviors with new behaviors. Since your pet should be feeling better, he is likely to have fun learning interesting and rewarding activities. And behind every happy pet, there is almost always a happy human as well.
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.
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