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Allergies are common in cats. For effective relief, take an integrative approach to your itchy kitty.

by Shawn Messonnier, DVM  Reprinted with permission of Animal Wellness Magazine, © 2006,

Cindy didn’t know why Jiggs was losing so much hair. Her little grey cat had developed a couple of nearly hairless patches on the insides of his back legs, and seemed to spend more time than normal grooming and licking those areas. Because he wasn’t scratching much, though, Cindy didn’t consider skin allergies.

Allergies are actually a very common cause of dermatitis in cats. Unlike dogs, allergic cats don’t usually scratch themselves even though they feel uncomfortable. Instead, they groom excessively, causing hair loss on various parts of their bodies, especially the abdomen, groin and inner thigh areas. Some allergic cats develop scabs (miliary dermatitis) or red lesions (eosinophilic lesions).

Although skin reactions are usually associated with underlying allergies, any disease in cats can produce similar skin lesions, so it’s important your veterinarian do some diagnostic testing and evaluation before simply assuming it’s allergies. Once a diagnosis of allergies is made, an integrative approach to treatment works best. In this article, I’ll discuss various therapies that can help your itchy cat.

For short term relief

Allergic cats are often treated with corticosteroids such as prednisone, or antihistamines such as Benadryl or chlorpheniramine. While these drugs can be safely used as part of an integrative approach to allergies, they are unfortunately more often than not the only therapies prescribed by many veterinarians.

  • Corticosteroids very quickly relieve inflammation and itching. The safest way to use them is to administer an oral form that will leave the body within 24 hours. The lowest effective dose should be used for the shortest length of time. As a rule, this means corticosteroids are only given on days when the cat is uncomfortably itchy. Injectable corticosteroids such as methylprednisolone acetate are also often used, since many people find it difficult to give oral medications to their cats. While these very potent formulations can be used a few times a year, it is best to limit them and use the lowest effective dose. Side effects are more common with these longer- acting injectable medications. While their anti-itching effects often wear off in a few weeks, they last in the cat’s body for several months and can cause immune system depression, chronic infections and diabetes.

  • While antihistamines can be effective in some animals with allergies, they are not as effective as corticosteroids. As well, they usually need to be given two or more times a day. If they work, however, there are no recognizable serious long term side effects.

Be more natural

Most allergic cats will need to be maintained with a year-round integrative approach. Many natural therapies can be used, and each veterinarian has his or her own favorite approach and products. Here are six guidelines to get you started.

1. Diet

Most cats do not have true food allergies, but your veterinarian should still keep in mind that food allergies can be a possible cause of itching. The only good way to check is with an elimination trial lasting two to three months. To eliminate the itching, cats with food allergies are maintained on a diet that does not contain the
offending allergens.

Even if food allergies aren’t the cause of your cat’s itchiness, he’ll benefit from a natural diet. Most commercial diets contain by-products and chemicals that increase cell damage and inflammation. Natural diets devoid of these ingredients can help reduce inflammation and heal the skin. Raw frozen diets such as those made by Bravo!, for example, offer high quality nutrition that can help prevent allergies.

2. Fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils) are one of the most common supplements used for treating the itchy cat. Most cats like the flavor of fish oil; for those who don’t, a balanced oil made by RX Vitamins for Pets called Ultra EFA may be preferred as it has a neutral taste. Regardless of the product, high doses (much higher than the label dose) are needed to help with allergies. In general, I recommend a starting dose of 500 mg of EPA + DHA once to twice daily.

3. Antioxidants

They are very helpful for reducing the chemicals (oxidants) that form as a result of cell death. Since cell death increases in allergic cats, additional antioxidants are needed to help the body neutralize pro-inflammatory oxidizing cell components. Common antioxidants that are good for allergies include quercetin, bioflavonoids, glutathione and grapeseed extract.

4. Herbs

Herbs come as powders, capsules or alcoholic extracts. Commonly used herbs to reduce inflammation and itchiness include dandelion, burdock and licorice.

Because the liver has to remove the pro-inflammatory chemicals and dead cells that cause itching and inflammation, liver support is often indicated in allergy treatment. The best known liver supporting herb is milk thistle.

5. Homeopathy

Homeopathic remedies are available as small pellets or tablets, or in a liquid form. Single homeopathic remedies to help with allergies and itchiness include rhus tox, sulphur, histaminum, graphites, psorinum and natrum. Combination homeopathic remedies (homotoxicology remedies) made by the Heel corporation are also very helpful; they include Psorinoheel, Heel Allergy, and Zeel (a remedy often used for arthritic animals but which has antihistamine properties).

6. Probiotics

It’s important to remember that the holistic approach to treating any cat focuses on his entire body, not just the disease or the organ system affected. Because many cats may absorb extra allergens from their gastrointestinal system, remedies to help heal the GI system must be used. For this reason, administering healthy bacteria (probiotics) is often indicated in the treatment of allergic cats.

Do I have to bathe him?

In my opinion, one of the most important things we can do for itchy cats is to frequently bathe them. Bathing will often relieve inflammation and itchiness, disinfect the skin and remove the foreign proteins (allergens) responsible for the clinical signs. Frequent bathing also reduces the quantity of conventional medications needed to control itching. Ideally, you should use a USDA certified organic shampoo with healing herbs and oils that is specifically made for frequent bathing. This minimizes the risk of irritating and drying the skin.

Most of my clients with dogs don’t have problems following this important piece of advice, but I can’t say the same thing for those with cats. I know it can extremely difficult to bathe cats, and this part of my treatment is often neglected because of it. It’s worth persisting, though, since regular bathing will go a long way to helping heal an allergic cat’s damaged skin.

You don’t want your cat sentenced to a life of chronic drug therapy because of allergies. By using an integrative approach, relying on natural supplements, and bathing him whenever possible, you’ll keep him healthy, comfortable and relatively itch-free most of the year.

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