Lots of animals, including humans suffer from allergies. Just as you may wake up on a Summer’s day with a snuffly nose, so may your cat! In this article, we look at what causes allergies in cats and how we can spot and treat the symptoms.
The trigger for an allergy is usually harmless and most animals don’t develop allergy symptoms. However, some animals have a particularly sensitive immune system which launches an attack on a foreign substance in the body, even if that substance is usually harmless. Some allergies are non-seasonal, such as food allergies and allergies to medications. However, some allergies are seasonal, such as dust and pollen.
What Are Cats Allergic To?
Cats can be allergic to lots of different things, including;
- Soaps and shampoos
- Cleaning products
- Cigarette smoke
- Fabrics, rubber and plastic materials
- Dust, pollens, mould and fungi
Allergies Fall in to Two Categories – Contact and Inhalant
Contact allergies include allergies to things like shampoos, soaps, cleaning products and plants. It is less common for cats to suffer these types of allergies as their hair protects them from most substances.
Inhalant allergies are caused by the cat inhaling airborne agents such as dust, pollen, moulds and fungi.
During the initial contact with an agent, the body will begin to produce antibodies within a certain type of white blood cell. If the body has contact with this agent again, the cells release antibodies in the form of antigens. The antigens cause the allergy symptoms, and over time, the body releases larger amounts of antigens, causing more and more severe symptoms. One well-known antigen is histamine, hence the “anti-histamines” that are often prescribed to counteract the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Cat Allergy Symptoms
- Licking or chewing of the feet. Cats are clean animals and naturally groom themselves regularly. However, if you notice that they are licking their feet more frequently than normal or chewing them, it may be because an allergy is irritating the skin around their paws.
- Itchy skin. Allergies can in fact cause itchy skin anywhere on the body, so any overgrooming should be noted. Overgrooming can also make the skin worse so it is important to spot it early to stop the problem becoming worse and developing into a cycle.
- Hair loss. Very poor skin, combined with overgrooming can lead to hair loss. At this stage, it is very important to get your cat checked by your vet.
- Skin lesions. Skin irritation caused by an allergy can also lead to skin lesions, which in turn can become infected, causing more pain for your cat.
- Darkening of pigmentation. Allergies affecting your cat’s skin can cause the pigmentation to darken. This is more noticeable when your cat is also suffering from hair loss.
- Thickening of skin. Longer term allergies can lead to a thickening of the skin as your cat’s body goes into overdrive to try to fight off the allergen.
- Watery eyes. If any allergens, such as dust or pollen get close to your cat’s eyes, they can cause the eyes to have a watery discharge.
- Runny nose. Similarly to the eyes, any allergens near your cat’s nose may cause your cat to have a runny nose as your cat’s nose literally tries to expel the unwanted substance!
- Scratching ears. The ears are another common place where allergens can get caught and cause irritation to your cat.
- Sometimes, an allergy can cause an actual rash on your cat’s skin. This is again more noticeable if your cat has already lost hair – or of course, if it is already hairless, like a Sphynx!
- Sneezing, coughing, wheezing. Similar to humans with hay fever or asthma, allergies to things like dust, pollen or mould can cause your cat to sneeze or cough, as its body tries to eject the allergen.
- Vomiting or diarrhoea. Vomiting or diarrhoea is another way that the cat’s body tries to expel substances it perceives to be harmful. This is more common with food or other items that the cat has eaten or drunk and less common with allergens that have come in contact with the cat’s skin or been inhaled through its nose. It is therefore less common with seasonal allergies.
Cat Allergy Treatments
If your cat begins showing any allergy symptoms it is important that you get them checked out by your vet. Your vet will ask you lots of questions about your cat’s environment and will carry out a thorough physical examination of your cat. If your vet cannot determine the cause of the allergy immediately, they may recommend skin or blood tests, or a special diet if they think it may be a food intolerance.
As always, prevention is better than cure! The best way to treat an allergy is to remove whatever is causing the allergy from the environment if possible, for example;
- Change any chemicals that you use around the home, including cleaning products, and your own shampoo, soap etc.
- If your cat is allergic to dust, it is important that your cat’s bedding is cleaning regularly and you regularly vacuum things like rugs, curtains and anything else that may gather dust.
- If your cat will tolerate it, it may help to bathe them regularly. This helps to relieve some of the itchiness and help any dry skin, as well as removing some of the allergens.
- If your cat is allergic to pollen, it may be worth considering limiting the cat’s time outdoors, particularly on days when the pollen count is high.
- Ensure that your cat receives regular parasite control – flea and tick repellents and wormers.
Some things cannot be removed from your cat’s environment. If this is the case, your vet may recommend one of these treatments;
- An allergy injection is often the best way to treat an allergy as this treats the allergy itself, rather than just relieving symptoms.
- Cortisone or steroids may be prescribed to help control the symptoms of the allergy.
- Antihistamines may be prescribed, but these work best if they are given before your cat is exposed to the allergen.
- Itchy skin may be relieved with the help of various shampoos.
- Fatty acid supplements can sometimes help to relieve itchy skin.
There are also many natural remedies that may help to prevent and treat allergies in cats including;
- Fish oil. Fish oil can be added to your cat’s food, which is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acid, and also an anti-inflammatory that can reduce itching. Cod liver oil should be avoided as it is too high in vitamin A and D.
- Quercetin is a plant pigment found in many fruits and vegetables, known as a bioflavanoid. It has lots of benefits for cats, naturally supressing histamines and inhibiting bronchial constriction which causes coughing.
- Bromelain is a natural enzyme found in pineapples. It is often used alongside quercetin because it helps the body absorb the quercetin more quickly. Bromelain also supresses histamines, reduces inflammation and provides some pain relief.
- Papain is a natural enzyme found in papayas and has the same benefits as Bromelain.
- Coconut Oil. Coconut oil contains lauric acid which fights the production of yeast. Yeast can be a cause of inflammation. Coconut oil also has antioxidant properties that prevent cell damage and help repair dry or itchy skin. Coconut oil can be added to your cat’s food or placed directly on to their skin as it is non-toxic so causes no harm if your cat decides to lick it. Some owners add coconut oil to their cat’s food regularly to help maintain a healthy coat and skin.
- Chamomile contains apigenin, which inhibits chemicals that produce inflammation, in a similar way to aspirin. It also works as a mild antiseptic that can kill yeast and bacteria, and helps promote healing of sore skin. It should be brewed and cooled before use. It should ideally be administered with a spray bottle, but can alternatively be applied with a comb. It can also be used as an ear cleaner, with a drop of vinegar added.
- Dandelion Root. Dandelion root contains natural cortisol which can suppress the body’s natural immune system in a similar way to medical steroids. Dandelion root also helps with digestion and liver detoxification. It can be brewed in to a tea and applied to the cat’s skin to fight itchiness.
- Cat’s claw. Cat’s claw regulates immune system function and can also be brewed into a tea and applied to the cat’s skin.
- Acidophilus is a beneficial bacteria that helps to regulate the immune and digestive systems. It can be found in certain yoghurts and is also available as a supplement. It can be given regularly to keep the immune and digestive system healthy to help prevent allergies and if your cat is already suffering with allergies, it can help to prevent them getting worse.
- Apple Cider Vinegar. Apple cider vinegar has antibacterial and mild antibiotic properties. It is therefore a great product for removing allergens from your cat’s skin. It can be too strong for your cat’s skin if used undiluted so it is recommended to mix it with equal parts water. It should be applied with a paper towel to specific areas. It can also be used as an ear cleaner, sometimes in conjunction with chamomile.
- Many cats hate baths, but if your cat is one of the few who will tolerate it, a soak in an oatmeal based shampoo will provide quick relief from itchiness. The high mineral and vitamin content can also help to heal sore skin.
- Liquorice Root. Liquorice root is a natural cortisone that helps to regulate the immune system in a similar way to medical steroids. Like Dandelion root, it also helps with liver detoxification and has anti-inflammatory properties. Liquorice root has lots of other benefits for your cat and can help with respiratory problems, digestive issues and arthritis, and even better – cats generally love the taste!
All allergies can cause real and significant problems for cats, as they can for humans and other animals. If the symptoms are left untreated, they can be very uncomfortable for your cat and your cat may be at risk of developing an infection from any particularly sore areas. If your cat is already vulnerable due to its age or any other underlying condition, allergies can cause severe respiratory problems including asthma attacks.
However, with appropriate preventative measures and a combination of good veterinary care and natural remedies, allergies can be prevented or minimised and any symptoms controlled and treated, ensuring that our cats are as comfortable and happy as they deserve to be.