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Allergic Dermatitis in Cats

By: Dr. Erika DePapp

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Allergic dermatitis is a general term to describe a group of skin allergies that may be caused by a multitude of factors in cats.

Allergies are immune reactions to a given substance (allergen), which the body recognizes as foreign. These reactions occur following initial exposure to the allergen, with subsequent development of a hypersensitivity that causes itching and inflammation upon future exposures.

The most common classes of allergic dermatitis seen in cats are:

  • Flea bite allergy
  • Food allergy
  • Atopy – an allergic condition caused by inhaled allergens, or absorption of allergens through the skin

    Less common are:

  • Drug reactions
  • Hormonal allergies
  • Bacterial allergies
  • Allergies to other parasites (mites, intestinal worms, ticks)
  • Contact allergies (due to topical treatments or exposure to fibers, floor polish and detergents)

    Atopy and flea bite allergy are usually seen in young adults, whereas food allergy can be seen at any age. Some animals may be prone to development of certain allergies due to genetic factors. Allergic signs may be seasonal, depending on the cause of the allergy.

    What to Watch for

  • Scratching, licking, chewing or biting the skin, feet and ears.
  • Red, raised, scaly areas on the skin
  • Bumps, crusts or pus filled vesicles on the skin
  • Increased skin pigmentation
  • Thickened skin
  • Loss of hair
  • Salivary staining (brown color)
  • Head shaking

    Diagnosis

    The specific diagnostic protocol may vary depending on what type of allergy or other skin disease is suspected. Every diagnostic test listed below may not need to be performed.

  • History and physical exam
  • Skin scraping
  • Skin cytology
  • Complete blood count and biochemical profile
  • Allergy blood tests
  • Intradermal allergy testing
  • Dietary trials

    Treatment

    The treatment prescribed by your veterinarian will vary with the type of allergy diagnosed. The following list includes the possible treatments that may be required.

  • Avoidance of offending allergens when possible
  • Anti-itch and/or antibacterial shampoos
  • Topical anti-inflammatory or antibacterial drugs
  • Antihistamines
  • Corticosteroid therapy
  • Immunotherapy (allergy vaccines)
  • Fatty acid supplementation
  • Dietary management
  • Antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial skin infections

    Home Care

    Home care is a crucial part of treatment for any dermatologic condition. Careful adherence to your veterinarian's recommendations regarding oral medications and bathing is very important. Some animals may require bathing several times per week. Additionally, medications are often required even after the clinical signs have resolved.

    Preventative care

    Although allergic dermatitis cannot be prevented, limiting exposure to allergens will help alleviate some of the clinical signs. Flea control in the environment is imperative for animals diagnosed with flea allergy dermatitis. Treating the pet alone is not sufficient to control the problem.

    Environmental reduction of any known allergens is advised. This may require keeping pets inside when pollen counts are high, avoiding long grass or freshly cut grass, and limiting dust and mold in the household. Eliminating exposure to certain foods is crucial to effective treatment of food allergy dermatitis.

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