Does Your Cat Have Allergies?

Cats are good at hiding signs of illness, but an itchy, balding or wheezy cat may be developing feline allergies.

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Itchy skin may be indicative of allergies. Neostock/iStock/Thinkstock

For all the people out there who are allergic to cats, it never ceases to surprise me how many people don’t realize that cats can have allergies, too. An overly sensitive immune system can wreak havoc on the lives of both man and beast, but the good news is that we know how to deal with it.

Adult cats have had a good many years to become exposed to different allergens, so it makes sense that this is the time that many allergies make themselves apparent. Contrary to popular belief, most allergies don’t pop up the first time a pet is exposed to them. It can take months or even years of exposure to the same trigger before the immune system finally becomes overwhelmed and overreacts with what we know to be the classic signs of allergic disease in cats: skin problems and respiratory issues.

Flea Allergies In Cats
The most common allergic disease in adult cats is flea allergy dermatitis. This is a seasonal problem in temperate zones, and year-round in subtropical and tropical regions that have no break in the flea season. Affected cats may have hair loss due to licking, often concentrated on the haunches and tail base. Red splotchy rashes can also be present. In the worst cases, cats can develop swollen, bumpy red-and-white lesions called eosinophilic granulomas.

Any cat suspected of having an allergic disease of any type should be treated with flea medications. Although some flea infestations are readily apparent, mild flea burdens may not always be obvious. Safe, effective and cat-friendly flea treatments are readily available and are the cornerstone of effective flea allergy management. Even in cats who suffer from other types of allergies, reducing the impact of flea bites on the immune system can be very helpful in reducing their overall reactivity.

Food Allergies In Cats
Food allergies are also diagnosed in cats of all ages, from kittens to seniors. While proteins such as beef, seafood, dairy and chicken are most commonly implicated, cats can be allergic to any food ingredient including corn, soy, and preservatives or dyes. In addition to the itchy skin and red skin common to allergic cats, felines with food allergies may also present with gastrointestinal signs such as vomiting or diarrhea.

Food allergies are diagnosed through a strict 10 to 12 week elimination diet with a hypoallergenic food. Once the cat shows improvement, owners can elect to remain on the hypoallergenic diet or transition to a regular diet that does not contain the offending allergen.

Environmental Allergies In Cats
Environmental allergies, or atopy, is less common than flea or food allergy in the cat. A genetic predisposition to developing a hypersensitivity reaction to environmental allergens is suspected. Cats present with very similar lesions to those seen in food allergic cats, and often small differences in clinical history help the veterinarian decide which diagnosis to pursue first. In addition to skin lesions, some cats with atopy also display respiratory signs such as asthma or bronchitis.

Once atopy is diagnosed, owners are encouraged to reduce exposure to allergens through use of HEPA filters. Outdoor cats sensitive to grasses and pollens may do better staying indoors. For cats with sensitivities to dust mites, owners may treat mattresses and upholstery with a special spray, and make sure cat bedding is washed regularly in hot water.

We have plenty of medications in our arsenal to help cats with immune disease. Felines may respond to a variety of treatments such as antihistamines, prednisolone, and cyclosporine. Owners of cats with respiratory symptoms should also reduce their exposure to inhaled irritants such as cigarette smoke, dusty litters and scented sprays. Therapy for atopy is lifelong.

Any cat with allergic skin disease may also have secondary bacterial, fungal or parasitic infections that must also be treated. Checking for these problems with a Wood’s light or skin scrape is part of the standard workup for felines with skin problems in many hospitals. It’s a lot of detective work to isolate the cause of allergies in your cat, but their relief is well worth the effort!

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Cats · Health and Care