It seems that with the warmer season behind us, we would be experiencing less skin allergies in our pets. This hasn't proven to be the case this year as I am examining itchy dogs and cats all day long the past few weeks.

There are many things that owners can do at home before bringing their pet to the veterinarian. There are three main causes of allergies in pets ... fleas, foods and environment. I will go through each one individually.

  • Fleas are back with a vengeance this year. The older topical flea and tick preventatives that we have been using for the last 10 to 15 years aren't working as well on many pets.

    While they are killing ticks in most cases, the fleas seemed to have developed a resistance to them.

    There are newer flea and tick control products that have been developed that are very effective. The other benefit of some of these products is that they are given orally so they cannot be bathed off.

    Many do require a prescription from a veterinarian. Some don't control ticks well so you may have to use more than one product if your pet lives in or travels to an area with a high concentration of ticks.

  • Food allergies do exist in both dogs and cats. In recent years, grains have gotten a bad name and pet foods that are "grain-free" have gained popularity.

    Grains themselves are not necessarily responsible for food allergies. Your dog or cat can be allergic to any protein or any carbohydrate in their food.

    These can include dairy, beef, chicken, wheat, corn, egg, lamb, turkey, oats, etc. So putting your dog or cat on a grain-free food won't necessarily prevent food allergies.

    To rule out a food allergy, your pet needs to eat a food with one protein and one carbohydrate source for about 12 weeks. The pet cannot have eaten foods with these food sources previously.

    During the feeding trial, they cannot eat any other foods, including vitamins, treats, chew sticks, or human foods.

    Currently diets made from rabbit, venison, fish, or kangaroo mixed with potatoes are popular. These foods should be purchased from your veterinarian as the over-the-counter foods can be contaminated with other foods during processing.

  • Environmental allergies are the most difficult to treat. Pets can be allergic to a variety of pollens from trees, weeds and grasses, molds, and dust or storage mites.

    Pets with these allergies usually start out with seasonal itchiness but after a year or two, they scratch year round. The best way to control environmental allergies at home is to remove the allergens from the skin with frequent bathing.

    Shampoos made with colloidal oatmeal and pramoxine HCl, which calm the itchiness for a few days, should be used weekly. Dogs should be kept in the shower for 15 minutes while the shampoo soaks and then rinsed well.

    Antihistamines are available over the counter and work in about 15 percent of patients. Each antihistamine should be tried for two weeks to determine its effectiveness before switching to another one.

    Your veterinarian can give you dosages of different antihistamines to try based on your pet's weight.

    If your pet still scratches after bathing and good flea control, or if there is redness or hair loss, visit your vet for more testing and treatments.

    Ask Dr. Jill Veterinary Advice is a column written by Jill Christofferson, DVM, of the Encina Veterinary Hospital in Walnut Creek. Contact her at