Feline allergy

When obsessing about your own allergies, and cursing the cat for your troubles, spare a thought for your poor feline as well. Because, like humans, cats suffer from allergies as well. And their allergies are as bad as ours.

There are four main types of cat allergies: inhaled allergy (often referred to as atopy), food allergy, flea allergy and contact allergy. It is estimated that about 15% of cats suffer from one or more allergies. These allergies might be why your cat has itchy skin, respiratory problems, sneezing, or even vomiting and diarrhea, the latter being possible indications that your cat has a food allergy.

Atopic (inhaled) Allergy: this is one of the most common allergies which affect cats. Cats, like humans, can be allergic to common substances such as tree pollen, grass pollen, molds, mildews and dust mites. In humans these allergens mostly cause breathing problems or hay fever. Cats often get itchy skin instead. So just as you or your partner might suffer springtime misery from pollen, if your cat has a seasonal allergy, it will suffer with itching skin throughout the same period, but the itching will subside for the rest of the year. However, if your cat is allergic to a persistent allergen such as dust mites, than the problem will last through the whole year. Allergic itching can be very aggravating and the intense scratching by which your cat tries to relieve it may cause bleeding. And the self-inflicted scratches can easily get infected, and need treatment with antibiotics.

In addition, many cats can become sensitised to a number of airborne allergens (e.g. as pollen), which means that keeping the cat away from the cause of the problem can be difficult. Treatment will depend on what allergy the cats suffers from. Anti-histamine and steroid treatments will block the allergic response in most cases - and the good news is that cats tolerate steroids much better than humans, and side-effects are minimal. Bathing the cat and using hypoallergenic shampoos should reduce the itching and can be very beneficial (and bathing the cat becomes slightly easier if the cat comes to associate baths with relief from itchy skin). Finally, a treatment may involve desensitization through vaccination. For this to be effective it is important to isolate exactly what is causing the allergic reaction. Once the culprit has been found, the cat is injected a few times with a small amount of the purified version of the allergen. This stimulates the immune system, and in some cases the cat can be almost completely cured.

Contact allergy: contact allergy is not that common in cats. However, a small number of cats suffer from allergy to cleaning solutions, plants, wool etc. This type of allergy may cause local itching and blistering, normally affecting the hairless part of the skin, for example the paws and tips of the ears. Isolating and removing the offending substance will solve the problem completely.

Flea allergy: very severe effects. The cat will scratch herself, tearing out patches of hair and breaking the skin, leaving bald scabbed patches around the flea bite. Keeping the cat free of fleas is the best treatment, and there are now some very good anti-flea treatments available. Be sure to use regular "frontline" treatment to stop fleas getting on to your catin the first place. Allergies can develop at any time in the life of a cat, and the more a cat is exposed to an allergen, the more likely it is that there will eventually be a reaction to it. Therefore it is important to keep up with treatment and prevention on a regular basis. Since fleas can cause other diseases in cats, (for example they can also infect the cat with tapeworms, or cause anemia in kittens) keeping the cat free of fleas is a sensible cat health-care measure.

Food allergies: these normally develop later during a cat's life, and usually after exposure to an allergen to something in catfood. The major source of allergies is proteins. Foods commonly associated with cat allergies are: beef and milk products, cereals (wheat, corn, soya), chicken and eggs. As with other allergies, the symptoms can appear at any age irrespective of whether the cat has just started a new diet or has been eating the same food for years. The symptoms of food allergies are the usual itching or digestive problems (diarrhea is very common). Some cats will also get an ear infection to go with with other skin problems. Because the symptoms of food allergy are similar to those of other allergies, the only sure diagnosis is by a process of elimination. Feed your cat with hypoallergenic food for at least 8-12 weeks. If a food allergy is causing your cat's problems. the symptoms should be substantially reduced. It must be stressed that for the test to be meaningful, the diet has to be strict. Remove any additional treats thecat's daily diet during the test period.

The best way to treat food allergy is by careful diet control. After the cat has been on a hypoallergenic diet you can start introducing various foods one by one. If the symptoms come back after feeding the cat with, for example, beef, you will then know that beef should be avoided. However, remember that your cat can be allergic to multiple products, and all of them will have to be eliminated from her diet.

Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.

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