Allergies in cats

Any pet owner whose furry friend suffers with allergies will know that they are no walk in the park. The process of determining what an animal is allergic to and then providing treatment and preventing flare ups can be a real journey.

Allergies vary widely from patient to patient, with some mildly affected and others suffering on a daily basis. With all, the aim is to identify and then avoid whatever it is they are reacting to.

What exactly is an allergy?

When your cat’s immune system reacts inappropriately to a food or something in their environment (like dust mites, pollen or grass) they are said to be allergic to that substance. Signs of an allergy in a cat can vary but may include:

  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Itchy skin (which may manifest as excessive grooming or incessant scratching)
  • Sneezing, runny eyes and a runny nose

We may find that a cat with an allergy struggles to put on weight, has a poor-quality coat and loses their fur in clumps.

What is my cat reacting to?

For most owners, the million-dollar question is what is it their cat is allergic to. Unfortunately, this isn’t always an easy question to answer. Allergy tests are expensive and are not always accurate. Also, many cats will have more than one allergy and/or an allergy to things that are not always easy to avoid (such as dust mites).

What allergy tests are available?

If appropriate, allergy tests can be run and do often offer a good place to start. This may mean blood tests or ‘intradermal tests’. An intradermal test is when the allergens are injected under the skin and the reaction size is noted. While these can be more accurate, they do require that your cat is put under anaesthetic and that a large portion of their fur is clipped. It is usually a veterinary dermatologist who will perform this test.

Allergy tests can help guide our treatment. We may also decide to start our pets on a course of ‘immunotherapy’, whereby we inject very small amounts of what they are allergic to over time, in order to try and build up their tolerance.

What about food allergies?

Food allergies are not uncommon. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t always grains that cats are allergic to. This is why ‘grain-free’ diets don’t always have the desired effect. More commonly, cats may be allergic to meats such as chicken and beef, or vegetables such as potato and peas. It is usually a good idea to try a 6 to 8 week trial of a hydrolyzed, hypoallergenic food to see if this helps to reduce symptoms. While on this diet trial, cats should not eat any other foods (including treats!).

For many allergic cats, their signs will be controlled with the appropriate medicine, which may mean anti-histamines and/or corticosteroids. Starting treatment at the first sign of a flare up can help to keep things well controlled.