Wednesday, 9th May 2012
Can dogs get hay fever?
This week's readers question is a simple one: do dogs get hay fever? However, the answer is not so straightforward. The term "hay fever" refers to a human problem we are all familiar with, and which is caused by an allergic reaction to airborne substances, e.g. pollen, as we move into summertime. The classical symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose, watery, inflamed eyes, sinus congestion etc., are the result of the immune system releasing chemicals, like histamine, as an "over-reaction" to inhaled allergens. The term "hay fever" is a misnomer, as there is no fever involved in the reaction.
When dogs inhale or come in direct contact with an airborne allergen such as pollen, they can also have an allergic reaction. This reaction does not usually take the form of human hay fever, although I have seen a small number of similar cases with sneezing, runny eyes etc. during my time in veterinary practice. The allergic reaction is more likely to show on the skin resulting in itching, which usually affects the face, feet, "armpits" and/or belly. An affected dog will scratch or bite at the itchy area, lick the paws, scratch at the ears or shake the head or possibly rub the face and eyes on the floor or against a surface in an attempt to relieve the irritation.
In severe cases, the skin becomes pink/red and highly inflamed, and persistent scratching can result in secondary skin infections with bacteria or yeast. This could take the form of ear infections, or "hot spots" on the skin, which are bald, weeping and very inflamed and painful. These cases will definitely require veterinary treatment to clear the problem up, but even with mild cases of itching, it is well worth seeking veterinary advice to avoid long-term, complicated problems. If a dog has seasonal allergies, they will usually start showing signs of being itchy from April/May onwards.
Veterinary treatment is aimed towards effectively controlling the allergic response, treating the symptoms as they present in each individual case and resolving any secondary infections. Anti-histamines are used to treat hay fever in humans, but they are generally ineffective in controlling itching caused by allergies in dogs and cats. The vet will also check for any other of the many causes of itching in your pet, e.g. parasites like fleas or mites, food-induced reactions to name just two.
Once the condition is under control using medication, there are some preventative measures that can help reduce the severity of the associated symptoms. Supplementation of the dog's diet with essential fatty acids (EFAs) has been proven to boost the natural skin defences, and to have an anti-inflammatory benefit to the skin. Regular grooming and brushing out of the coat removes dirt and pollen. Regular anti-parasitic treatment helps prevents fleas and mite infestations, which are also a common trigger for allergic skin problems and itching. If you require any more information on this common problem, your vet will be able to advise you on your individual case.
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