Scratching the itch – managing atopy

Itchy pet? You’re not alone. We see so many itchy pets every day and understand how frustrating it is when it’s not a simple fix. Diet is quite often blamed as the cause, however this isn’t necessarily the case. Often the allergies are environmental in origin, however I will discuss both in this post, as you’ll see diet should form part of a multimodal approach to treatment.

So, what is atopy?

Atopy or atopic dermatitis is a ‘hypersensitivity or over-reaction to a variety of commonplace and otherwise harmless substances in the environment. These allergens include plant pollens, house dust mites, or mold spores.’ (VIN, 2020) This condition causes chronic itching, chewing and licking at the skin. This causes the skin to break down and become even more susceptible to allergens and vulnerable to infection from the normally harmless bacteria that live on the skin surface. In clinic, we’ve seen a massive increase in skin issues recently; with the changes in weather being drying on the skin, in conjunction with more time spent indoors with the heaters blowing dust around the house, it’s no wonder!

Environmental allergies can play havoc with your pet’s skin

How can diet help?

Clients often immediately blame food as the cause of these allergies. Although food is a component, most of these allergies stem from environmental allergens such as grasses, pollen, dust or fleas. Food allergies are fairly rare in animals, but can develop, sometimes spontaneously on diets the pet has eaten for many years. They can be related to environmental allergies in that following a breakdown of the skin barrier and the body no longer being able to stop reacting to everything it comes into contact with, starts to recognise food as the enemy thus developing an allergy. Of course, some patients do have true, stand-alone food allergies that can show as dermatological or gastrointestinal issues aswell which is why it can become confusing.

If a food allergy is thought to be present, we recommend starting a food elimination trial with your veterinarian; this entails feeding a prescription hypoallergenic diet ONLY for at least 6-8 weeks, while also treating the symptoms. This might include antibiotics, anti-itching medications, injections, medicated shampoos or creams to soothe the skin as prescribed by your vet. Following the elimination phase of the diet, a re-challenge with different protein sources (chicken, beef, lamb being the most common food allergies) to elicit a response and return of symptoms to verify what your pet is allergic to. Once this is determined, you may be advised to return to your old diet, a new diet with a different protein source or a supportive, hypoallergenic diet for long term use.

If we are convinced that it’s purely environmental allergies, there are also diets we can use for this. With environmental allergies, the goal is slightly different. As elimination is very difficult, the aim is to protect and support the skin barrier to make it less vulnerable to attack from allergens and infection. If you think of the skin like bricks and mortar, in an atopic dog the mortar is crumbling and unable to hold the bricks together, creating gaps where the outside nasties can get in. Once the allergens have gotten quite literally under the skin, it triggers the release of histamine; which anyone who suffers from hayfever knows the itchy, dry skin and eyes this causes. With diets designed for atopy, we are trying to replace the mortar to protect the body and also dampen the histamine response to prevent the skin from drying out and becoming itchy.

Think of your pet’s skin like bricks and mortar.

Feed the skin

To repair the skin, we use;

– Essential fatty acids such as Omega-3s & 6s, sourced from fish oils

– Antioxidants like Vitamin E and A

– Supportive supplements like zinc and copper

– Anti-inflammatory ingredients such as curcumin (turmeric extract), aloe vera

– Polyphenols (which act as antioxidants to combat free radical damage) sourced from cranberries, apples and carrots

Prescription Diets such as Hills Derm Defence™ or Royal Canin Skin Support™ include all of these at therapeutic levels to deliver the right balance of nutrients to nourish the skin and rebuild the protective outer layer to prevent allergens entering the body. In addition, Derm Defence™ also includes the Histaguard complex™ that is formulated to dampen the histamine release and associated symptoms when allergens are encountered. These diets are specifically built for pets with atopy and are frequently recommended to help support the pets skin during medical management. Do keep in mind that these diets are for adult pets, so you will need consult your vet or nutritionist for other alternatives for pets under the age of 12 months. When starting one of these diets, I’d recommend, for best results, stopping any supplements you may be giving (fish oils, vitamins etc) as they can throw the balance of the diet out or interact with the actives in the diet, reducing the efficacy of the treatment. Always let your vet know if you are supplementing in any way to prevent unwanted side effects or interactions to any drugs or diets that might be recommended.

In conjunction with diet, management is ongoing as this is typically a chronic condition; the most important thing is to keep on top of the itching as this is the most damaging part of the cycle. Keep in mind that no treatment or diet will ‘cure’ your pet’s condition; I have seen many people online claiming that a certain diet, or grain-free, or raw or some other boutique diet has cured their pet’s allergies. This is not the case. Your pet will always have an allergy and although the symptoms can be well controlled or significantly reduced, there still is potential for the condition to return with a vengeance if management isn’t kept on top of. This much is clear with clients who stop feeding the prescribed diet and see a sudden return of issues. It’s important that regular vet and/or dermatology specialist visits, dietary and medical management all form part of a good preventative regime and are all considered to keep your pet itch-free and comfortable long term.

Has your pet ever suffered from skin reactions or allergies? How do you managing your itchy pets?

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