Inhalant Allergies

Help is Available When the Immune System Overreacts to the Environment

Is your feline companion driving you crazy with her constant grooming? Does she wake you up at night with a chronic cough and/or sneezing? Is she scratching herself raw, or do you notice little red bumps on her skin and you know it is not the work of fleas? If these describe your feline friend – for three or more months each year – it is possible that she has allergies. And unless treated, these signs will not disappear as long as the allergen – the substance causing the problem – is present.

Cats are known to have several different types of allergies, with each one causing a variety of reactions. After flea allergy, the most common is inhalant allergy. An inhalant allergy, or atopy, is the immune systems way of overreacting to normally innocuous environmental substances such as pollen or dust mites, says William Miller, VMD, professor of dermatology at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. That overreaction is evidenced in how the cat reacts and the signs we notice.

Excessive grooming
Among the signs of inhalant allergy is itchy skin. It may appear first as an itch without lesions, Miller says, but constant scratching around the head and neck will create sores. Another sign is miliary dermatitis, which Miller describes as tiny red bumps with crusts. The cat will scratch this area and sores will form.

If your feline companion is constantly grooming, it may not be vanity (or OCD, see June 2002 CatWatch) but rather her response to an allergy. A cat may have areas with no fur because they lick and groom excessively, Miller says, and that will cause them to constantly spit up hair balls.

Treatment approaches
The good news is that allergies are highly treatable, using either medication or vaccines. The first step toward treating any allergy is to identify and remove the allergen. Eliminate the cause if possible, advises Miller. If the allergy is to food or to fleas, remove the source. However, that is often not a viable solution to inhalant allergies because most of those allergens cannot be avoided. Miller further says it might be possible to minimize exposure by keeping the cat inside, but usually it will require drastic changes in the cat’s environment that are not practical. Therefore, another treatment approach must be considered.

Treating inhalant allergy depends on the duration of the itch, Miller says. If a cat is itching a few months out of the year, we would give steroids or an antihistamine. Steroids are used safely for many cats because they seldom cause the dangerous side-effects that are more common in people, although Miller warns that diabetic cats cannot use them. I only see five to 10 cats a year where medication does not work, he says.

In those cases, the cat is tested to determine the cause of the allergy. Once the allergens are identified, felines are usually given allergy shots. Testing for allergies can be costly, ranging from $150 to $450 or more, depending on where you live.

The vaccine is given one or more times a month and will be required for the rest of her life, Miller says. Most caregivers will learn to give the vaccine at home, and the cost may vary but expect to spend at least $100 a year.

What about shampoos? Miller says they dont work very well, and most cats fail to see the sense of humor in bathing. We do not use that approach.