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Can cats have allergies just like their pet parents? Yes, they can! However, cats don't normally show the same clinical signs — watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing — that we commonly associate with allergies in humans. Instead, cats with allergies display signs of itchiness such as licking, chewing or rubbing on the fur and skin. Allergies in cats are commonly separated into three categories: flea, environmental and food. The specific type of allergy present will help determine treatment and what to feed a cat with allergies. Read on to learn more about the types of allergies, their clinical signs and treatment options.
Clinical Signs of Allergies in Cats
Most cats with allergies will appear very itchy, usually by licking, chewing or rubbing their face and bodies. Many times, the itchiness will result in visible areas of skin irritation and the pet parent may see the following:
- Fur loss
- Skin rash
- Any signs of skin irritation
With food allergies, gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting, diarrhea and lack of appetite can also be observed. If a pet parent notices signs of allergies in their cat, a thorough evaluation by a veterinarian is recommended.
3 Common Allergies in Cats
The most common types of allergies that affect cats include:
1. Flea Allergies
A flea allergy is one of the most common skin conditions seen in cats. Flea allergies are caused by a reaction to the saliva transferred by a flea's bite. Many times, the fleas may not be seen by the pet parent or even the vet during a physical examination. It can take only a few bites to incite the intense itchiness associated with a flea allergy. Clinical signs may include itchiness, hair loss, skin redness and scabs which are most common on the head, neck, abdomen and lower back or tail.
Flea allergies are easily treatable with preventative medication, and treated with year-round flea medication for cats that are allergic to fleas. These preventative medications come in both topical and oral forms for ease of administration. Other medications to control itchiness and treat secondary bacterial skin infections may also be needed based on the vet's evaluation. Treatment of the home or yard as well as any other cats or dogs living in the home may also be recommended.
2. Environmental Allergies
Cats can also have allergies to things in their environment just like humans. Common environmental allergens are trees, grass, mold and dust mites, as well as things that we may not suspect, like plastics used in food and water bowls, cleaning products and detergents. Diagnosis of environmental allergies is based on ruling out other causes. Many times, signs of environmental allergies are seasonal, with flare-ups occurring when the allergen is at high loads in the environment.
The best way to treat environmental allergies is to remove the trigger allergen from the environment. Using air purifying machines, vacuuming frequently, and washing your cats bedding and other household items that can trap allergens help reduce environmental allergens. Using metal bowls and washing them frequently and using unscented cleaning products, detergents and litters can also be helpful. When your kitty has an allergy flare-up, evaluation by a vet is recommended. Your vet will probably prescribe treatment with oral or topical medications to reduce itchiness, skin inflammation and secondary skin infections. Some cats have to be on long-term medication or therapeutic nutrition for management of their environmental allergies. Allergen-specific immunotherapy shots based on skin allergy testing can also be an effective treatment option. These shots require special testing, which is normally done with a veterinary dermatologist.
3. Food Allergies
Can cats have allergies to certain foods just like their pet parents? It may be more common than you think! In cats with food allergies the main clinical sign is constant non-seasonal itchiness. Cats with food allergies may also have gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss and decreased appetite. Per Tufts University Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, the most commonly reported food allergies in cats and dogs are to chicken, beef, dairy, eggs and fish. Can cats have allergies to other foods? Yes, but it's less common.
Diagnosis of a food allergy requires doing a strict food trial by introducing a novel protein or hydrolyzed protein food supplied by your cat's vet. Novel protein foods use protein and carbohydrate sources which the cat has not been exposed to before, like duck or venison or green pea. However, in hydrolyzed foods, the proteins have been broken down into such small pieces, they are less likely to result in an allergic response. Food trials are generally conducted for about 8 to 12 weeks, but many cats with food allergies will start to show improvement during the first month or so. Food trials are very strict because it is a process of elimination — feeding even a single food not pre-recommended by your vet could render the test inaccurate, so make sure to follow your vet's instructions to the letter. If you have questions about what to feed a cat with allergies, your vet can assist in choosing the right food for your cat. There are therapeutic cat foods available that are specially formulated to help cats with food allergies. Be sure to ask your veterinarian about these if food allergies are discovered. As with other allergies, additional medications may be needed initially or during a flare-up to decrease itchiness and treat skin irritations.
Now that you've learned that cats can indeed have food allergies you know to be on the lookout for excessive itching and skin irritation or gastrointestinal upset. There are many options for treatment based on the underlying cause of the allergy, including oral and topical medications as well as special foods. With a treatment plan put in place by you and your veterinarian, cats with allergies are able to lead a happy and full life.
Jessica Seid is an emergency veterinarian practicing in the New England area. She is a graduate of the North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine and has been in the field for more than a decade. When she's not helping patients, she enjoys spending time with her husband, daughter and French bulldog.