Cats have allergies just like humans and as with human allergies, cat allergies vary in severity and can only be managed, not cured. Cats can develop allergies from flea bites to food to airborne pollens. Reactions, often severe ones, might appear suddenly at any age. Some cats develop respiratory allergies (usually asthmatic wheezing) or digestive allergies (vomiting and diarrhea), but skin allergies are the most common.
A single cortisone shot from a general practice veterinarian or even an over-the-counter skin treatment can provide sufficient relief if symptoms are mild. But if basic treatments don’t work or stop working, specialty intervention might be needed from a holistic practitioner or a dermatology/allergy specialist.
First Things First: The Diagnosis
Where do you begin if watching your cat scratch, bite and lick himself bald is driving you crazy? Phillip Raclyn, DVM, who practices both holistic and traditional veterinary medicine in New York City, says his first order of business is determining whether the cat’s symptoms are allergy-related, rather than the result of another problem such as an autoimmune disorder or parasites.
“If someone brought a cat to me and said, ‘I think my cat has an allergy,’ first we’d have to determine that was actually the case,” Raclyn says. “It can be a very difficult thing to determine. There’s a process of elimination that you have to go through.”
Raclyn emphasizes that all cats have an “allergy threshold,” a point at which symptoms such as itching manifest themselves. “Any cat can develop an allergy problem to any substance and the allergy can exist without symptoms for a long time until that threshold is crossed. For example, a cat can eat chicken for years with no apparent problems and then, all of a sudden, boom! chicken allergy,” he says.
Although genetics can be a factor, the quality of a cat’s food can make a difference in the treatment and prevention of allergy problems, Raclyn says. “Natural foods, omega-3 fatty acids and a good multivitamin supplement are essential.”
Start With the Food
Pinpointing the trigger to your cat’s reactions can be tricky, especially if she’s allergic to more than one substance, which is common. George Doering, DVM, a veterinary allergy specialist from the San Francisco Bay area, says he begins the process by working with the animal’s diet. “Usually we see patients after they’ve had two or three cortisone shots and they’re still itching,” he says. “The first thing we do is change the food to see if that’s the problem.”
Doering suggests a homemade diet with potato as a starch and an exotic form of protein such as rabbit, venison or duck, because these foods are unlikely to be in the cat’s regular diet. “You won’t see changes right away; you have to give it at least eight weeks. Some specialists will even tell you 12 weeks, but it takes at least eight,” he says.
If yours is a household with multiple cats, Raclyn recommends all cats in the house eat the same food, if possible. “Feeding cats separately is extremely difficult, if not impossible,” he says. It’s hard to keep one cat out of another cat’s food.
Flavor enhancers can cause food addictions in many commercial cat foods and can be an impediment to starting a cat on a new diet, says Ihor Basko, DVM, a Hawaii-based holistic practitioner and acupuncturist.
Raclyn recommends a slow, gradual transition to a new cat food; and picky eaters should be given a choice of acceptable foods and be allowed to choose what they like best. In extreme cases, where a cat is starving itself to protest the diet change, he might prescribe an appetite stimulant, such as Periactin.
The Next Step: Testing
If cat food isn’t the culprit, a blood allergy or skin test might determine the source. A serum allergy test costs $150 to $200, depending on where you live. “It’s next to useless for determining food allergies, but it’s very helpful in diagnosing contact or inhalant allergies,” Raclyn says.
Casey Phillips, who owns Dominic, a 2-year-old Siamese, says her cat’s serum allergy test yielded positive results for house dust mites, black flies, sycamore, rye grass, ragweed and honeysuckle.
Dominic’s allergy specialist put him on oral steroids, as well as Periactin, which Casey believes has been a wonder drug for her cat. In addition to being an appetite stimulant, Periactin is also an antihistamine used for human allergies. Other veterinarians, like Raclyn, claim limited success in putting cats or dogs on antihistamines, but both Casey and her veterinarian were thrilled with Dominic’s progress on Periactin.
Stop the Itch – For Good
Whether holistic or traditional, most veterinarians discourage the long-term use of cortisone injections to stop itching because prolonged use can be harmful to a cat’s kidneys. Doering gives a cortisone shot initially for immediate relief but gives cats with allergies shots based on serum allergy test results for longer-term treatment of pollen and mold allergies. Like human allergy shots, these extracts desensitize or hyposensitize the cat to the allergy source and are effective 75 to 90 percent of the time, Doering says.
Your veterinarian need not be a specialist to perform serum allergy tests or formulate cat allergy vaccines. A veterinary school or the closest dermatology/allergy specialist can consult with your veterinarian by phone or, in some cases, online for more precise instructions, Doering says.
Cats suffer from allergies less frequently than dogs, Doering says. He estimates that he sees one cat with allergies for every nine dogs in his practice. “I like cats and I’d be a feline allergy specialist if I could, but then I’d starve to death! We don’t get many cats in here, but the cases we do get are pretty desperate.”