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It's a common occurrence…pet owners expressing feelings of frustration, helplessness and even despair from a single symptom.  Although this may not seem like a big deal, these owners suffer through sleepless nights as their pets scratch and chew and lick, all in an attempt to get some needed relief.  If it's not fleas…what can this common problem be?

Seeing a beloved pet scratch often leads many owners think their pets have fleas.   When trips to the veterinarian and doses of flea products fail to resolve the itchiness, it is time to think about the possibility of allergies, or a condition called atopic dermatitis (Atopy).

Just like people, our pets can suffer from allergies and sensitivities to particles in the air.  Many times, pollen, certain grasses and trees or even dust mites can trigger this reaction in pets.

Unlike people though, our pets rarely sneeze and show signs similar to "hay fever".  Instead, our pets are itchy and they will do anything to relieve that sensation.  Some pets scratch constantly, others lick and chew at certain spots, like their feet and still others might rub against carpets and furniture.  This behavior, and the consistent noises and thumps produced, is often too much for many pet owners.  Sadly, some pets are relinquished to shelters or rescues due to a condition that is actually manageable.

Whenever your pet is itchy, it is important to remember that external parasites or even food allergies can cause very similar symptoms.  Your veterinarian must help you distinguish between flea bite allergies, food allergies or atopy.

According to Dr. Kimberly Coyner, a board certified veterinary dermatologist with the Dermatology Clinic for Animals in Las Vegas, about 10% of dogs suffer from atopy and some cats can develop this condition as well.  Many pets will start showing signs as early as six months of age and most will occur before the animal is five years old.

Beyond the generalized itchiness (known medically as pruritus), pets might also show recurrent skin and ear infections or seem to be obsessed with licking their paws.  These symptoms most commonly occur in warm weather for pets with pollen or dust allergies, but can also occur year round in some cases.

Making a diagnosis of atopy typically involves ruling out other common causes of itchy skin. Parasites such as fleas, mange, or lice are a common first rule out, often times followed by ruling out a food allergy. Once atopy is the diagnosis it is crucial to try to find out what the patient is allergic to. This can be done by a simple blood test or skin sensitivity test could also be recommended. It is important to keep in mind that it often takes several visits before a diagnosis can be confirmed and can seem frustrating at times.

While not simple, atopy can most often be managed with baths, medications, managing the environment and immunotherapy.  Successful management requires close communication with your veterinarian and ample patience.

Some pet owners opt for antihistamines to help provide relief, but experts caution that they are very rarely effective on their own. Other owners insist that steroid pills are the answer.  However steroids simply decrease the symptoms and do not solve the problem and they are not without the potential for side effects.

Ideally, all pets with atopy would undergo allergy testing and then start an allergen specific immunotherapy, guided by your veterinarian. By slowly exposing the pet to increasing quantities of the allergen, this immunotherapy can actually "desensitize" the pet and, over time, help reduce the severity of the symptoms.  Dr. Coyner says that 70-75% of allergic pets respond to this treatment and it takes several months to become effective, so it is not a certain cure or a "quick-fix". The overall goal for a pet with atopy is to get them itch free while using the lowest amount of steroids possible.

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