Itchy Skin Wins Big and Vets Scratch Their Heads

Itchy Skin Wins Big and Vets Scratch Their Heads

Posted By: Ockert Cameron Published: 26/02/2017 Times Read: 4790 Comments: 0

Edited by Dr Anuska Viljoen, BVSc (Hons), VetMFHom MRCVS LicICCH

Dogs and cats, just like humans, can have allergies. More than 30% of all skin irritations in our pets and fur kids can be attributed to allergies. Allergens can be found in foods, inhaled allergens like weed, tree and grass pollens, moulds or fungi, insects, carpet fibres and even other pets. The age of onset for initial allergy symptoms is usually between 6 months and 3 years of age.

Please read our disclaimer regarding the research and information provided and referenced in this article.

Just like we inherit allergies from our parents, so can our fur kids. If one or both parents have allergies that will increase the likelihood that his / her offspring will also have allergies. It is for this reason that some breeds are more predisposed to allergies than others. That is not to say however that allergies are limited to only these breeds.

Did You Know?

Top 10 Most Common Claims from Pet Medical Aids for Canines in the United States (data from 2005-2015: 630,000 claims, 90,000 dogs) (Pets Best Pet Health Insurance):

  • Atopy/allergies (30% of claims)
  • Otitis (17%)
  • Osteoarthritis (10%)
  • Undiagnosed mass (8%)
  • Cruciate ligament injury (7%)
  • Hypothyroidism (7%)
  • Pyoderma (6%)
  • Undiagnosed gastrointestinal condition (5%)
  • Undiagnosed lameness (5%)
  • Urinary tract infection (5%)

From the article:

"Pets Best has received more than 40,000 atopy/allergy claims…"

The top two and #7 are all related to itchy skin, which has been observed for years, in those who care to look for it, as being associated closely with vaccinations.

#4, the growth of tumours, has been bedfellows with vaccinations for as long as vaccines have been out.

Similarly, hypothyroidism and cruciate “injury” (read this article by Dr Will Falconer (DVM) published in Vital Animal & The Natural Parth to see why that word is in quotes) have roots in immune based inflammatory disease, commonly a by-product of vaccination.

Allergies can present as a variety of symptoms, but in the dog, the most common symptoms occur as skin irritations: itching, scratching, digging, and gnawing at the skin, often to the point of creating open raw wounds over large areas of the body. Chronic ear infections are another common symptom. Occasionally dogs will have respiratory symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, or a nasal or ocular discharge. Food allergies may produce, in addition to skin irritations, vomiting and / or diarrhoea. Symptoms can extend to include epileptiform seizures, and many holistic vets feel that allergies can ultimately result in chronic diseases such as arthritis, asthma, chronic urinary tract infections, inflammatory bowel disease, etc.

Interestingly, whereas dogs typically have itchy skin symptoms, a human allergic response usually produces respiratory symptoms. An estimated 10 percent of the human population may be allergic to animals (the rate for being allergic to cats is about twice as high as for dogs); a higher rate of 20 to 30 percent of individuals with asthma have pet allergies.

In conversation with Dr Viljoen, she states that “every allergic patient presents a unique diagnostic challenge, and merely deciding which diagnostic tests or path should be run can be the most challenging of all our decisions.

In a nutshell, allergy is the result of an immune system that has, for one reason or another, turned against the self. Sometimes, this reaction seems instantaneous, as when your fur kid receives a food that contains something to which he or she is allergic, and he or she breaks out almost immediately with rashy, itchy skin. But frequently, allergies may only become evident in your fur kids after “gestating” for a long period, as long as three years or more. It becomes almost impossible to pinpoint the exact cause that has instigated the symptoms.

Dr Anuska continues “In every case of allergy, I initiate immediate treatment of the dog’s gastrointestinal system. As we heal the gut, we in turn enhance the immune system – recognizing that a good portion of the immune system is located in the gut wall. A balanced immune system helps the dog deal naturally with any allergen that may be causing allergic reactions, whether this allergen is contact (skin-induced), inhalant (respiratory induced), or gut induced (food allergy). It’s been my experience that if we can get the immune system balanced, most, if not all allergies, tend to go away.

She also notes that “though I have not seen any specific studies that confirm this, experience has proven to me, and many other integrated veterinarians and colleagues in South Africa, that some animals are allergic to the preservatives, artificial flavours, and / or artificial colourings found in some commercial dog foods. Oftentimes a simple upgrade to a higher quality diet, such as biologically specie appropriate raw food diets, without artificial ingredients, eliminates the allergies.

Health care is an ongoing process and a healthy body is the best guard against environmental stresses. When looking for holistic or integrated pet care, we recommend finding a veterinarian who prioritizes nutrition and diet in the initial stages of treatment. Nutrition is truly the foundation of health, and should not be overlooked in any disease or health problem. Good quality nutritional supplements should also be added to the regimen. Quality nutritional supplements can go a long way to improve health and assist your pet in overcoming disease or illness! Other things to look for would be credentials or certifications in specific modalities including acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, etc. Ask the practitioner for a list of treatment options they offer and/or the modalities that they are proficient in.

Keep in mind that alternative therapies can often complement traditional veterinary care and may eliminate or allow you to use fewer conventional drugs.

Inhalant Allergens

Your pet can be allergic to the same inhalant allergens that may cause you to suffer. These include pollens, moulds and house dust mites. Pollen allergens often occur seasonally, such as ragweed, cedar and grass pollens. However other allergens are present year-round, such as moulds, dander and dust mites.

Contact Allergens

It is thought that up to 70% of pet allergy exposure is by contact with the skin, thus making it the leading source of irritation and allergy to a substance. Animals with allergic disease may have small cracks, invisible to the naked eye, on the surface of their skin. When an affected pet comes into contact with pollens in the environment, allergens gain entry through these small openings. Because our pets aren’t bathed daily, offending allergens can remain on the skin for days or weeks at a time, causing continued irritation, itching and other symptoms.

Flea Allergens

One of the most common type of allergens in both dogs and cats is flea allergy. This allergic reaction is caused by the saliva of the flea, and can often lead to severe hair loss, itching and secondary skin infections. One flea bite on an allergic pet can cause intense reactions. Flea allergy can often be managed through avoidance with flea deterrent products. A word of caution when choosing an insecticide: Pyrethrum is a common ingredient in many insecticides and can also cause allergies.

Food Allergens

Food allergy is the most likely cause of allergy symptoms in animals less than 1 year of age. Food allergies also manifest themselves with ear inflammation/infection (which can lead to head shaking), feet licking & chewing, face rubbing and itchy skin. In some cases, dietary change alone may not be enough to bring your pet below symptom level. Some may suggest that this lack of improvement may indicate the test results aren’t as accurate as they should be. Keeping in mind that allergies are cumulative, dietary change alone many not be enough to bring your pet below symptom level because there are still more allergens reacting other than the foods that dietary change alone cannot address.

Common Indoor Allergens

Kapok - is typically found in furniture upholstery, pillows and in stuffed animals.  In these cases, isolation of the patient from such areas or removal of those items from the home are indicated.

Orris root - are the stems of three species of iris. They are often used as a fixative in potpourri to enhance colour and fragrance as well as certain cosmetics, and can be recognized by their violet scented fragrance. 

Pyrethrum - class of insecticides was originally formulated from plants of the Compositae (Asteraceae) family, which includes daisies and chrysanthemums. Pyrethrum refers to both the crude plant extract and the marketed formulation of insecticide. 

Sisal (hemp) - is a term which refers to both a species of agave, and to the fibre which can be produced from this plant by processing its leaves. Commonly used in rope and twine, as well as paper, cloth, wall coverings and carpets.

House Dust - The allergens within dust mite are distributed through the waste products of the dust mite. The most common areas in which dust mites can be found are carpets, bare floors, furniture upholstery, pillows, mattresses, box springs, stuffed animals, books and in high humidity and damp areas. Many of these are very difficult to isolate from and therefore maximum amount of cleaning is advocated where mite allergies are a problem. In cases where they occur in carpet, vacuuming regularly with special HEPA filter bags is indicated. Bare floors should be mopped and dusted at least 3 times a week.


Cockroach - The allergen includes secretions and faeces from the cockroach. The allergen is widely distributed in house dust and concentrations are highest in kitchen areas, however it is detectable throughout the house. They generally live in moist and shady areas. They prefer warm temperatures and do not tolerate cold. Commonly they are found in landscape areas and are abundant in yards, in palm trees and hollow trees. Cockroaches are also common in basements, sewers, crawl spaces, cracks and crevices in porches and foundations.  Typically, cockroaches will move indoors in rainy or cold climates and populations will increase visibly during those times. They may enter the house via sewer connections, under doors, around utility pipes and through air ducts.

Common Fungi & Mould Allergens

Moulds can be found almost anywhere, and all moulds produce airborne spores. Typically, their growth is stimulated by warmth and increases in humidity. They tend therefore to be most prevalent during hot humid months. Basements, compost piles, cut grass, barns and wooded areas are very typical spots for finding large populations of moulds. In an older bathroom, a hot shower will also temporarily increase the mould population. Typically, therefore, moulds will and can be found in almost any and every home and office environment, both indoor and outdoor. The important point about mould allergy is that it is often related to an overgrowth of Candida; this yeast causes cross reactivity to many other yeasts and mould fungi. Once a Candida allergy is triggered, your fur kids may experience allergies to more common moulds [ref 1]. Following is a list of ways in which mould population can be decreased or diminished to a large extent.

CLADOSPORIUM -Grows on plants, leather, rubber, cloth, paper and wood. One of the most common causes of mould allergy. [ref 2]

ASPERGILLUS - Found in soil, damp hay, on grain and on fruit. [ref 3]

PHOMA - Grows on magazines, books and other paper products. [ref 4 & ref 5]

PENNICILLIUM - Grows on fruits, breads and cheese. A mutant form of the penicillium mould is used in the manufacture of penicillin. Allergy to penicillium spores however, should not be confused with allergy to penicillin as a medication. [ref 6 & ref 7]

ALTERNARIA - Often found growing on carpets, textiles and horizontal surfaces such as window frames. Also found in soil, seeds and plants, as well as in water damaged buildings. [ref 8 & ref 9]

RHIZOPUS - Typically found in children’s sand boxes, in clusters of pine needles and leaves, sweet potato, strawberries, stewed fruit and amongst the nest, feathers and droppings of wild birds. [ref 9]

CURVULARIA - May cause leaf spots and seedling blight. Also seen on castor beans, cotton, rice, barley, wheat and corn. [ref 8]

CANDIDA ALBICANS - Very seldom found as an airborne mould spore. They are common in soil, organic debris and in humans as a saprophyte in the nasal pharynx and faeces. [ref 10 & ref 11]

FUSARIUM - Widely distributed on numerous grasses and other plants and is a common soil fungus. Major parasites of rice, sugar cane, sorghum and maize grains. Also occurs regularly on fruit and vegetables. [ref 7 & ref 12]

PULLULARIA - This is the dominant fungus found on leaves. It also grows in the surface layers of many types of soils and is most prevalent following treatment of the soil with nitrogen. It has also been isolated from grasses, seeds, honey comb, nests and feathers of living birds, frozen fruit cake, leather, cotton fabrics and concrete surfaces. [ref 8 & ref 13]

HELMINTHOSPORIUM - Best known as parasites of cereals and grasses. Frequently they are isolated from grains, grasses, sugar cane, soil and textiles. [ref 8 & ref 14]

NIGROSPORA - Most commonly found as a plant parasite. [ref 8 & ref 15]

SMUTS - Most often found on corn, grasses, weeds, flowering plants and other fungi. Usually the spores are disseminated by wind. [ref 16]

STEMPHYLIUM - Isolated from dead plants and cellulose material. [ref 17]

Web Sites on Allergies (South Africa)

  • Allergy Society of South Africa - (Website)
  • Allergy Foundation South Africa - (Website)
  • Dr. Adrian Morris Allergy Clinic (South Africa) - (Website)
  • Independent Directory of Integrated Veterinarians in South Africa by Raw Food for Pets - (Our Directory)

References and Articles

Good reference articles & videos further reading available at:

  • Mould allergy (South Africa) Allergy Foundation
  • South African report of first case of chromoblastomycosis caused by Cladosporium (syn Cladophialophora) carrionii infection in a cat PubMED
  • Invasive aspergillosis in developing countries PubMED
  • Indoor Mold, Toxigenic Fungi, and Stachybotrys chartarum: Infectious Disease Perspective PubMED
  • Seasonal respiratory allergy and the associated pollens in South Africa Journals South Africa (requires Adobe PDF reader).
  • Mold allergy (South Africa) Health 24
  • Characterisation of allergens and airborne fungi in low and middle-income homes of primary school children in Durban, South Africa PubMED
  • Common indoor and outdoor aero-allergens in South Africa AJOL
  • Mold Allergens in Respiratory Allergy: From Structure to Therapy PubMED
  • The South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2008, Issue 39, pp 72 – 80. Treating candidiasis
  • Occupational allergy among table grape farm workers in South Africa - UCT (requires Adobe PDF reader).
  • The Air-Borne Fungi in Johannesburg Journals South Africa (requires Adobe PDF reader).
  • Allergic Disorders in Africa and Africans: Is It Primarily a Priority? PubMED
  • Aerospora of an Eragrostis curvula pasture in South Africa BioMED
  • SMUT (Fungus) WikiPedia
  • Allergic bronchopulmonary stemphyliosis – NCBI PubMED (requires Adobe PDF reader).

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