Skin Allergies

Analyzing an uncomfortable situation

According to a national survey, veterinarians treat more skin disorders than any other problem. So many of us know the heartbreaking, helpless feelings we get when our pet is suffering an allergic reaction. Allergies, which manifest through the skin, are some of the worst maladies a pet must often endure. Whether the itch is localized, causing them to scratch, bite, and lick an area raw, or over the entire body, causing restless nights of shaking and scratching from the constant skin-crawling itch, both scenarios are all too familiar to so many dogs and cats. The skin is a good outside indicator of what’s going on inside the body. Why is it that so many pets are allergic? It doesn’t seem natural, you say? Often it’s not.

Skin conditions commonly seen in dogs and cats are yeast infections, miliary dermatitis and hot spots in dogs. Yeast is a sour smelling fungus often found in the ears of dogs and cats with chronic ear infections. It’s accompanied by a lot of dark waxy build-up in the ear canal, causing the pet to scratch pretty much anywhere on the body. Hot spots are a nickname for a common condition called Pyotraumatic Dermatitis. It consists of a bacterial infection, usually staphylococcus intermedius, that causes a painful oozing sore to develop anywhere on a pet’s body. Hot spots burn and itch terribly and can spread from the licking and scratching. Feline Miliary Dermatitis lesions appear as small, red, crusty bumps that itch and often result in sores from scratching.

Like humans, many pets have a genetic predisposition making them unable to tolerate airborne dust, pollens, and molds (inhalant allergens); food ingredients such as grains, fillers, and chemical additives (food allergens); or, something toxic such as flea bites, contact with cleaning chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, and vaccinations (environmental allergens).

However, in many cases, it isn’t just their genes that cause them to fall victim to allergens, but an overloaded immune system unable to fight off the constant attack of several antigens at once. An example is the case of a pet that handles an undiscovered food allergen all winter without symptoms, but when summer rolls around and the pollen counts go up, the immune system can’t cope and allergy symptoms show up. A diet change at the time the itching starts can alleviate the reaction. Obviously not much can be done about exposure to pollen, so the thought is to reduce the allergens to which the dog is being exposed. A change in food may eliminate a potential contributor to the problem.

Diet seems to be one of the biggest underlying reasons for many allergic reactions. Dogs and cats today are being fed highly processed food that consists largely of grains. The practice of using large quantities of carbohydrates in pet food is fairly recent, since the pet food industry is approximately only 80 to 90 years old. Scientists know it takes thousands of years for a species to evolve in order to adapt to a changing environment. Pets being closely related to wolves and big cats, have not evolved quickly enough to tolerate such a radical change in their diet from carnivorous to omnivorous with poor quality ingredients.

Many pets suffering allergic skin conditions are unable to tolerate gluten, the protein found in grains such as wheat and corn. Most commercial pet foods are over processed and cooked at high temperatures, again unnatural to a carnivore’s system. On top of that, many popular dental chews and treats are made solely of wheat gluten. In a true carnivorous diet, carbohydrates are not the main fuel source. Fat and protein are used for energy. So, when the pet’s system is bombarded with carbohydrates in its food, an imbalance can occur, allowing yeast to proliferate and other allergic reactions of the skin, ears, and gastrointestinal track to appear.

With cosmetic breeding, many bloodlines today have been compromised genetically by the inbreeding for colors and features sought by judges and fanciers all over the world. Through this practice, many pets are turning up with pancreatic enzyme insufficiency, and a myriad of other health problems, which leaves them incapable of absorbing necessary nutrients from their food. In addition, there is increasing evidence that over-vaccination is linked to allergies, chronic ailments, and autoimmune disorders. Finally, it is the weakened immune system that allows parasites such as fleas, mange, mites and worms to take hold.

With over-vaccination and inappropriate diets, our domestic companions have become a product of chronic ailments and disease of our own making. What can we do to bring about real change? Consider a several-pronged approach.

Sifting through the options

In many cases of chronic allergies, vets will do their best to suppress painful symptoms with drugs such as oral steroids, antihistamines, antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections, steroidal creams and ointments, as well as medicated shampoos and short-term hypoallergenic prescription foods. However, the symptoms can and often do return if the underlying reason for the allergy is not discovered and relieved.

In the conventional allergy-testing world, there are four major medical labs analyzing skin and/or blood serum samples from thousands of pets each year that show signs of severe allergies. According to Bio-Medical Services (BMS), an allergy testing lab in Austin, Texas, the newer blood serum tests are less painful and faster than the original skin testing methods. In 1989, BMS developed a program of testing for and treating allergies called Pet Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay, or “Pet ELISA”.

At BMS, immunotherapy or hyposensitization is the primary course of action for treating air-borne allergies. The process is supposed to desensitize the animal with scheduled repeated injections, containing small amounts of antigens. The body produces antibodies against the allergens to help form long-term immunity. It is a long and tedious protocol, which takes much diligence on the part of the caregiver.

Some holistically trained veterinarians are employing different techniques to treat allergies. One method new to veterinary practice is called Nutrition Response Testing. “A large percent of my practice is treating animals with allergies,” said Jan Harkins, DVM of the Reedsburg Small Animal Clinic in Reedsburg, WI. “We’ve found NRT a great technique or method to find where the weaknesses are in the body and determine ways to support and strengthen the body’s ability to handle things it comes in contact with in the food or environment. In most cases we change the diet to fresh whole foods. Improving the diet and digestion helps almost every allergic condition,” concludes Harkins.

Nutrition: the foundation of health

Nutrition seems to be one of the most important factors in long-term relief from chronic allergies. With American farmland being dramatically depleted of nutrients, some important trace minerals are lacking in the diets of humans and animals alike. Research is showing that adding a few important supplements can make a big difference in health. A multi-vitamin and mineral supplement (including trace minerals), a well-rounded digestive enzyme supplement (protease for digesting proteins, amylase for carbohydrates, and lipase for fats), and a probiotic supplement (healthy bacteria normally found in the intestines) added to the food at the time of serving can dramatically boost the immune system and give pets a chance to heal. Further conditions of the skin and coat, such as seborrhea, pruritis, and scurf, can be diminished by also adding essential fatty acids to the diet through a combination of fish oil, evening primrose oil, and borage oil.

Changing the diet to one that consists of more quality meat sources and fewer grains almost always helps mild to moderately allergic dogs and cats. Find three or four quality brands of food and rotate them on a quarterly basis to prevent allergen overload and nutrient deficiencies. Each year, The Whole Dog Journal (WDJ), a monthly magazine dedicated to natural and holistic pet care, creates a valuable list of the top dry, canned, and raw dog foods available. WDJ is a non-biased publication, which doesn’t accept advertising and is supported only by subscribers. Find out more at their website, A great resource for what your cat should and shouldn’t be eating can be found here at Holistic veterinarian and author Dr. Jean Hofve’s site:

Ideally, investigating home-prepared recipe books, written by holistic vets and pet nutritionists (see a list below), offers an inexpensive way to feed few or no grains using whole unprocessed meats, vegetables, and supplements. Consider high-end, grain-free, fresh-frozen raw diets available at specialty pet supply stores and boutiques. Getting as close to a species appropriate diet as possible for your pet will give the most health benefits for the money spent, and often cut down on veterinary bills in the future.

Breeders can help improve bloodlines in their animals by following these same dietary standards, generation after generation, to produce stronger pets with stronger immune systems able to better tolerate antigens in the environment. Pups and kittens weaned from their mother’s milk onto a species appropriate diet will have stronger immune systems than pups that are forced to eat low quality dry foods consisting mainly of grains and fillers.

If your pet is discovered to be highly sensitive to one or more inhalants, such as pollens of trees, grasses, weeds, mold, or dust, bathing frequently with soap-free shampoo consisting of Aloe Vera, which contains a glycoprotein called acemannan, can provide relief from inflammation and itching. Colloidal Oatmeal shampoo has also been shown to be effective in offering some relief from inflamed skin conditions. Also, your veterinarian can discuss medicated shampoos for occasional use.

Our role in change

Like in anything, only time will tell if we as a society can make the necessary changes in caring for our pets to help them overcome their epidemic of allergies and illness. It seems we may have finally grasped the charade of corporate marketing techniques and learned how to read labels and change our own lifestyles for the better. We are buying healthier foods, taking supplements, and utilizing complementary medicine by the millions. Now we just need to realize the same applies to our companion animal population and start at home with our canine and feline family members. They rely on us for all they have to live for — we owe them health and longevity.


Bitomsky, Marilyn. “Digestive Enzymes: The Missing Link.” Life Extension Apr. 1999.

Broadhurst, C. Leigh. “The Essential PUFA Guide for Dogs and Cats: Oils cats and dogs need for healthy skin and coats.” Nutrition Science News Oct. 2001.

Broadhurst, C. Leigh. “Healing Skin and Coat Conditions.” Nutrition Science News Oct. 2001.

Plechner, Alfred J and Martin Zucker. Pet Allergies: Remedies for an Epidemic. Inglewood: Very Healthy Enterprises, 1987.

Recommended websites

Recommended reading

Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats: The Ultimate Diet by Kymothy R. Schuyltze, C.C.M, A.H.I

The Nature of Animal Healing by Martin Goldstein, D.V.M.

Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn, D.V.M., Ph.D. and Susan Hubble Pitcairn

Pet Allergies: Remedies for an Epidemic by Alfred J. Plechner, D.V.M. and Martin Zucker

The BARF Diet: Raw Feeding for Dogs and Cats Using Evolutionary Principles by Ian Billinghurst, B.V.Sc.[Hons], B.Sc., Dip.Ed.

Enzymes: The Key to Health by Howard F. Loomis, Jr., D.C., F.I.A.C.A

NOTE: The statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These statements and the products of this company are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Please consult your veterinarian before implementing any new diet, exercise, and dietary supplement programs, especially if your pet has preexisting medical conditions or is taking prescribed medications. The statements made on this website are for educational purposes only and are not meant to replace the advice of your veterinarian.

Proper treatment of health conditions depends upon several factors, including, but not limited to, your pet’s medical history, diet, lifestyle, and medication regimen. Your veterinarian can best assess and address your pet’s individual health care needs. You should consult with your veterinarian before starting a new diet, supplement, or treatment regimen. Individual results may vary.

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