Atopy is the most common skin disease we see in our practice. It is seen more often in dogs and can be manifested with different symptoms. It tends to be a lifelong problem which is always frustrating to treat and needs constant monitoring and adjustment in treatment. As a general rule it starts early in a pet’s life, from six months to three years of age, and can occur in any breed and gender.

How does an allergic reaction occur?

The whole process is rather complex and it starts with an exposure to the allergen which could be anything from dust mites, fleas, pollen, grass and moulds just to mention a few. Once exposed to the allergens animals will produce different antibodies called immunoglobulines (IgM, IgA and IgE). For some unknown reason, an allergic dog or cat will produce more IgE than a healthy pet and as a result of that, allergy occurs.

Which breeds are often affected?

West Highland Terries, Staffordshire terriers and Bull Terriers are commonly affected but any other breed can get it.

What are the symptoms?

There are many symptoms of atopy and pet can have one or all of them. They vary in intensity and can change with time and seasons. Licking paws, rubbing eyes, inflamed ears, scratching groin and armpit area, losing hair around muzzle or lots of dandruff and smelly coat are often present. Most dogs will have multiple problems. Your pet may scratch constantly and as a result, they may have bald spots all over their body. Head tilt as a result of ear infection with or without ear discharge may occur. Many pets have conjunctivitis and “runny” eyes. Some pets have thickening of the skin with black pigmentation of the skin. These are result of chronic skin infection with yeast and bacteria.

How is atopy confirmed?

Clinical symptoms and a skin scraping are often enough to arrive to provisional diagnosis. Blood and skin tests are available to pinpoint the cause of the problem. However, unless desensitisation is to be attempted, this often does not influence the treatment significantly.Most of pets will have a certain degree of bacterial or fungal skin infection and this is important to find out since they need different treatment.

How is it treated?

There are many treatments available for atopy.

Food supplements such as different oils (e.g. first cold pressed sunflower oil, flaxseed oil, fish oil, evening primrose oil) can all be used in the treatment of atopy. They contain the essential fatty acids (EFA) which interfere with allergic inflammatory pathways. They are cheap but must be used daily for 6 weeks to see improvement.

Megaderm is a veterinary product that is a combination of first cold pressed sunflower oil and Vitamin A and E, both important for skin health.

Essential 6 is one of the latest products which works like others in this group but is applied as a top spot. It does not cause stomach upset when used and can be used on animals with a history of pancreatitis. It is administered weekly and has to be used for 8 weeks to see an improvement.

Homeopet drops are a homeopathic remedy which is a mixture of different herbs and other elements. It works well without any side effects and is suitable for many species. It can also be mixed with other products and is available over the counter.

Shampoos are an important part of the treatment. They reduce bacterial and fungal infection on the skin surface, can dissolve dandruff and reduce itchiness. Some of them have moisturising effect and can be used along with any other food supplements.

Topical treatment such as different ointments and sprays (Cortavance) can work well for mild cases of atopy. Ear and eye drops, which are often a combination of anti-inflammatory and antibacterial/antifungal medications, can be beneficial too.

Systemic treatment involves use of cortisone, cyclosporine, antibiotic and antifungal tablets. It is used for moderate to severe cases and if there is generalised skin irritation. They all have side effects and can be harmful to your pet if not used properly. All these drugs are prescription medicine and you need a visit to a vet for them to be prescribed. If your pet needs them on a regular basis then long term six monthly monitoring is a must.

Hypo/desensitisation is the only cure for this disease. It involves the collection of blood samples and serum testing to determine the source of the allergy. Once done, the pet is started on injections that should make it immune to certain allergens. Most dogs are allergic to over 20 different antigens. The success rate is up to 80%. It is important to note that once started your pet needs injections once a month for the rest of their life.

Skin testing is a golden standard for diagnosing the cause of your pet’s atopy but it is expensive and needs expertise so it should be done at a specialist centre with a veterinary dermatologist.

If you have any questions, please contact your local Vets4Pets practice.