The arrival of spring brings warmer weather, greener grass, and longer days to get outside and enjoy them. But with the rites of spring comes a dreaded wrong: hay fever, triggered by the pollen that blankets the great outdoors at this time of year. No matter where you live—an urban metropolis or the rural countryside—pollen can make life miserable.
Symptoms of seasonal allergies in humans include runny nose, itchy skin and throat, and itchy runny eyes. But did you know that dogs and cats are also susceptible, though their symptoms are different?
Spot the Signs of Pet Allergies
Animals can’t tell us they’re suffering, so we must learn to recognize their hay fever symptoms—excessive head-shaking; scratching and biting at their own maddeningly itchy skin; and irritated, inflamed skin, ears, and paws—and seek the help of a compassionate veterinarian before these symptoms develop into life-threatening infection. In people, hay fever manifests in respiratory symptoms, but pets experience pollen allergy through disease of the body’s largest organ: the skin. “Skin problems caused by allergies are a serious medical issue that can drastically diminish a pet’s quality of life,” says Heather Peikes, VMD, Dip. ACVD, a board-certified veterinary dermatologist based in New Jersey.
Veterinary dermatologists typically treat secondary skin and ear infections with antihistamines, and sometimes omega-3 supplements are recommended. Customized vaccines may be given based on the results of skin testing. The vaccine may be administered as an injection every one to three weeks, or as a sublingual pump (drops given by mouth). If the animal does not respond to vaccine therapy, there are medications that can provide relief. To locate a veterinary dermatologist near you, visit ACVD.org.
Rx Alternatives for Treating Allergies in Pets
Pet parents can take simple steps to prevent allergies from progressing to the point where they require prescription meds and a customized vaccine. The first and easiest anti-allergy strategy is a diligent daily wipe-down. Apply a clean, damp towel to dogs and cats after they spend time outdoors to remove pollen; do this every time they come inside. (Yes, it’s a chore; to make it easier, prepare stacks of towels and a jug of water right by the entrance door to your home, so there’s no tracking of allergens throughout the house.) Focus especially on pets’ paws and paw-pads, taking care to wipe between the toes, where pollens accumulate and cause enormous irritation. “Cats don’t love baths, but they do enjoy a thorough, full-body wipe-down,” says holistic veterinarian Michele Yasson, DVM, who practices in New Paltz, N.Y. “It’s how the mother cat grooms her kittens, and it’s a great opportunity to bond with your cat.”
As for dogs, if your dog loves to go swimming, now is the time to indulge—and always follow up with a thorough toweling-off to remove pollen residue, making sure to gently wipe inside ears to prevent ear infection.
Decrease Pollen in the Home
- Remove shoes and outerwear when you enter your home so pollens aren’t tracked into the indoor environment you share with your pet. Grass cutting exacerbates pollen allergies, so when it’s time to mow the lawn, be sure all windows and doors are closed, and if possible, ask your neighbors to tell you their landscaping schedule so you can be prepared to batten the hatches before you hear the rev of the lawn mower engine.
- Launder pets’ bedding at least once a week. To simplify this chore, cover dog or cat beds with a sheet, so it’s easy to toss the used sheet into the wash while you re-cover the pet bed with a clean sheet.
- Bathe dogs once or twice weekly with a gentle emollient shampoo. To minimize dryness, which further irritates inflamed skin, use an unscented, soap-free pet shampoo, advises Peikes. Or try a soap-free shampoo that contains neem oil, which is wonderfully moisturizing. (It’s easy to make your own neem-enriched shampoo by adding a few drops of straight neem oil to your favorite unscented pet shampoo).
Bathe dogs once or twice weekly with a gentle emollient shampoo. Try a soap-free shampoo that contains neem oil.
- At bath time, remember that pets’ ears become irritated and itchy as a result of the allergic response. Yasson prescribes this remedy: “Soak a cotton ball in witch hazel, and squeeze the liquid into the dog’s or cat’s ear; massage the ear gently from the outside, then let the animal shake the excess out.” Talk to your veterinarian about the best ear cleanser to use if your pet’s ears are infected.
- If Spot or Fluffy presents with red, puffy eyes, and/or excessive ocular discharge, gently wipe eyes using a cotton ball soaked in saline solution, or an over-the-counter herbal eyewash or drops for irritated eyes (these often contain eyebright). It’s fine to share herbal eyewash products with pets: “People, dogs, and cats are all mammals, and we all have mammalian eyes,” says Yasson. “So what works to relieve eye discomfort for people also works great for pets.”
The homeopathic remedy eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) offers relief for pollen-irritated eyes. For small dogs and cats, dissolve a single pellet in some water, then squirt into the mouth; for larger pets, use two pellets. For best absorption, Yasson administers homeopathic remedies between meals.
The herb mullein also relieves the eye irritation of hay fever; simply add it to your pet’s food, in tincture form, twice daily. The dosage scale works like this: for critters under 25 pounds, Yasson advises giving one-quarter the dose for an adult human; for pets 25–50 pounds, half the human dose; and for larger animals, the full human dose. A typical human dose is about four drops.
Local honey is a popular natural remedy for allergies in people, and Yasson suggests treating pets to a daily spoonful of the sweet stuff too. “It contains local pollen, so ingesting it in small doses is very helpful for pets coping with pollen allergies,” she says. The recommended daily dosage is one-eighth teaspoon for small critters; one quarter teaspoon for midsize pets; and half a teaspoon for big dogs. However, if your pet has diabetes, check with your vet before giving honey, as it does contain large amounts of sugar.
Giving your pet local honey in small doses is helpful for pets with pollen allergies.
Allergies are an immune system response, so foods and supplements that fortify the immune system are key. Both Peikes and Yasson recommend a daily dose of omega-3 fish oil for pets for both immunity and skin health. Dogs and cats—even finicky ones—love the flavor, so giving this remedy is as easy as distributing tasty treats (follow dosage directions on the package). Probiotics also strengthen immunity (follow the dosage scale for mullein), as does virgin coconut oil, a superfood that I give my dogs every day; they love it.
Finally, an anti-inflammatory diet is the way to go. That means home-prepared food whenever possible, including raw meat and raw bones as well as bone broth; if you can’t be your pets’ personal chef, select a grain-free brand of commercial food. There’s no better way to tell adored dogs and cats “I love you” than with a delicious bowl of allergy-fighting grub.