Last Updated on: May 15, 2015 by Ingrid King
Allergies are an extreme reaction of the immune system to common substances in a cat’s every day environment. Feline allergies can be a vexing problem for cat guardians and veterinarians. This article provides an overview of allergy symptoms, and of how feline allergies are diagnosed and treated.
Feline allergy symptoms
Allergies can manifest with a wide array of symptoms:
- Sneezing, coughing and wheezing
- Itchy skin/increased scratching
- Itchy, runny eyes
- Itchy back or base of tail (most commonly seen in flea allergies)
- Itchy ears and frequent ear infections
Causes of feline allergies
Just like with human allergies, feline allergies can be caused by a wide range of substances:
- Tree, grass, weed, mold, mildew and dust pollens
- Flea-control products
- Prescription drugs
- Cleaning products
- Cigarette smoke
- Rubber and plastic materials
Diagnosis of feline allergies
Diagnosing feline allergies can be a frustrating and drawn out process. For topical allergies, there are currently two methods of allergy testing available: the skin prick test or intradermal test (small amounts of suspected allergens are pricked or injected into the skin), or the RAST (radioallergysorbent) blood test. There is quite a bit of debate among veterinarians about the accuracy of either test methodology.
Food allergies can only be accurately diagnosed through a food elimination trial. There are two approaches to food trials: a hypoallergenic diet, or a novel protein diet. Hypoallergenic, or hydrolyzed protein diets, are formulated with the protein in the diet broken down into molecules too small to trigger the immune reaction. The idea behind the novel protein diet is to feed a diet with a protein that the cat has not been previously exposed to. Unfortunately, with pet food manufacturers coming up with ever more exotic diets, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a truly novel protein. Typically, novel protein diets would be venison, rabbit or duck based. During a food trial, the new diet needs to be fed exclusively for a minimum of 12 weeks.
Treatment of feline allergies
Treatment will depend on the cause of your cat’s allergies.
If you were able to determine what is triggering your cat’s allergy symptoms, prevention is the best treatment. In the case of environmental allergies, eliminate the trigger. For dust allergies, frequently wash and vacuum. Consider eliminating carpeting. For pollen, tree and mold allergies, keep your windows closed, and use HEPA filters for your furnace/air conditioning system and vacuum cleaner. Use dust-free, unscented cat litter.
In some cases, bathing your cat once or twice a week may prove helpful, but most cats are not going to be thrilled about this treatment, and you’ll have to weigh benefits against the stress this may cause.
Far too many vets immediately reach for steroids to treat feline allergies. While steroid injections effectively relieve symptoms, they don’t address the root case, and relief usually only lasts a couple of weeks. Steroids can have potentially serious longterm side effects, making this the least desirable treatment option.
There are a number of medications that have been used with more or less success to treat feline allergies. Atopica (cyclosporine) is an immunosuppressant that has been helpful in some cats. It helps reduce the inflammation response. Antihistamines such as Benadryl may help reduce symptoms. Never use over the counter human allergy medications on your cat.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid supplements may be helpful in relieving feline allergy symptoms.
The goal of hyposensitization therapy (allergy shots) is to desensitize the cat to the substance she is allergic to. It requires quite a commitment on the guardian’s part, since the injections have to be given frequently, and they can take up to two years to become effective, and even then it may not be effective.
There are a number of natural remedies available to help with feline allergies. Spirit Essences Skin Soother formula may help balance the cat’s energy system, allowing for healing from the inside out. Since cats with allergy symptoms can be pretty stressed, Reiki can also have a positive effect on helping the cat become more calm and balanced.
Feline allergies are a frustrating and complex issue. Your first step in dealing with them should always be a visit to your veterinarian.
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.