Pet allergies are big business

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO
Gwendolyn Lorch, DVM, treats Barney, a German Shepherd with allergies.

It's that dreaded season. Allergens are bountiful and wreaking havoc on our eyes, noses and throats. But the allergy suffering isn't exclusive to humans. The misery many of us have to deal with can extend to our very best friends; our beloved household pets.

Allergic symptoms in dogs and cats can translate into frustration, misery and big business. If you have spent time in the company of a favorite canine and witnessed persistent licking and paw chewing along with incessant scratching, red skin and "hot spots" plus itchy ears and runny eyes, you are likely watching the effect of allergies in action. Cats, too, present allergies in a similar manner along signs such as hair loss, scabs or open sores, excessive scratching and discharge in the ears.

In both people and pets, an allergy is a state of hypersensitivity in which exposure to an allergen induces the body's immune system to overreact.Gwendolen Lorch, DVM and assistant professor of dermatology at OSU's College of Veterinary Medicine, believes cases of pet allergies are trending upward, particularly in the Midwest. "Puppies that are bred and raised in Arizona may never present themselves with an allergy. But for areas like Ohio, an average vet practice may treat pet allergies and related ailments in 30-40 percent of all appointments booked," Lorch says.

Although animal genetic testing for allergies is still evolving, there are some commonly identified breeds with a predisposition to allergies. Labradors, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Pit Bulls and Golden Doodles are among the most susceptible, along with flat-faced breeds such as Pugs, Bulldogs and Boston Terriers. Since most dogs do not develop allergies until 12 to 36 months, the practicality of testing for allergies in a puppy prior to purchase or adoption is minimal. Equally challenging is the task of tracking allergy traits within a breed or bloodline since most females are bred before the age of three.

Flea Allergic Dermatitis (FAD) is the most common skin disease in dogs and cats. For the FAD patient, 100% flea control is essential for the pet to remain symptom-free.Regrettably, fleas in our homes may survive in low numbers year-round, making flea control maintenance ongoing. Atopic Dermatitis (AD) is an inherited predisposition to develop skin problems from exposure to commonplace substances including pollens of weeds, grasses and trees, mold spores, dust mites, feathers and more.

Obtaining an accurate diagnosis for allergies is a multi-step process requiring an investment of time and money. Although common culprits behind chronic itching are usually external parasites and allergies, testing is essential to rule outconcerns such as food allergies and other secondary infections. Similar to human allergy testing, it's a process of elimination. "Seasonal allergies are easier to diagnose," explains Lorch. "On the other hand, environmental and food allergies can look exactly the same and result in a year-round disease. The itching and ear infections continue regardless of season." Bacterial and yeast infections, though secondary to the allergy, can increase a pet's itching. Long-term treatment with antibiotics and anti-yeast medications is commonly required, along with medicated bathing programs. Since pets do not typically grow out of allergies, managing the skin condition becomes critically important.

Once a pet has been examined by a vet and has been diagnosed with environmental allergies, intradermal skin testing or serum (blood) tests are performed to provide a means to identify the allergens so an allergy vaccine or drops can be formulated. Sometimes combinations of both skin and serum tests are necessary to accurately identify the extent of all the allergens causing the pet's allergies. Simple allergy testing can range between $400 to $800 without factoring in the cost of the exam or other diagnostics, if needed. Vaccines administered through injections or drops under the tongue average $650 per year.

Buying relief for your pet is costly, but one new drug may be able to offer a reprieve for your wallet. Animal health company Zoetis has introduced an allergy relief tablet, Apoquel, which may change the quality of life for owners and pets alike. Touted for its rapid onset relief (within four hours) without the side effects associated with steroids, Apoquel is a welcome new weapon in the pet allergy battle. "Since there aren't a lot of research and development dollars targeted for pet allergy study, we are limited in treatment options right now," says Lorch. "Apoquel has proved to be a valuable drug in helping our serious cases."

Darcy Reynolds is a freelance writer.