Skin allergies including by plants and insects

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What is it?

Skin allergies are one of the most common causes of itchiness in pets, especially dogs. Pets can develop skin allergies from a variety of causes including parasites, food, plants, pollens, mould, dust mites and insects including ants. Australia is home to a large variety of plants and insects which can cause skin allergies and skin irritation in pets. This factsheet highlights the plants and insect causes of skin allergies and skin irritation more unique to Australia.

What can cause it?

There are various insects in Australia which can cause skin irritation and allergies, including various species of ant, bee, wasp and spider [see the separate factsheet on Spider Bites]. Broadly, pets can suffer from either an insect bite causing local irritation or anaphylaxis, or they can also suffer from a more chronic skin allergy if they are allergic to some insects such as ants.

Various plant species can cause allergies in pets, frequently these allergies occur more often during spring and summer months when flowers and pollens are more prevalent. However some pets may develop chronic skin allergies to plants, grasses and pollens which may occur throughout the year. Pets can develop allergies due to contact with specific allergens, or by inhaling or ingesting them. Atopy refers to pets that suffer from inhaled allergens such as pollens [see the factsheet on Atopy in dogs].

It is also common that pets who develop skin allergies, may be allergic to more than one allergen.

What animals are at risk?

Both dogs and cats can be affected by skin allergies caused by plants and insects.

Insect bites such as by ants, bees and wasps, cause a focal area of redness and inflammation which is usually very painful, so the pet may lick or chew at the site of the bite, or may hold their paw up in pain. Anaphylactic reactions can vary in their severity, and if any swelling impacts on the pets breathing then this can be an emergency situation. Pets are obviously more at risk outdoors and during seasonal times of year when insects may be more prevalent such as when plants are flowering. Skin allergies can affect dogs and cats of any age, and can sometimes be associated with exposure to different plants, pollens or allergens which exist in different areas – and some may be more prevalent during particular times of the year. It’s also worth remembering that pets may be allergic to more than one potential allergen. So being aware of this can be beneficial if exposing your pet to new environments such as when moving house or going on holidays.

What are the symptoms?

Skin allergies can vary in their presentation, from focal areas affected, to being widespread affecting the pet’s entire body.

Symptoms of skin allergies in pets can include:

  • Itchiness.
  • Chewing, biting or licking specific areas such as paws.
  • Greasy coat, sometimes with an odour.
  • Areas of red and inflamed skin, sometimes with areas of moist discharge.
  • Dry skin or a dull coat, dandruff and sometimes areas of hairloss.
  • Irritated ears, sometimes being red and inflamed, with a discharge or odour.
  • The red flag symptoms commonly including itchiness, chewing paws, irritated ears, and licking focal areas of skin irritation.

    Insect bites can cause focal areas of skin irritation or more generalised anaphylaxis, with symptoms including:

  • A focal area of redness or swelling.
  • Pet licking or chewing this area of irritation.
  • Hives reaction or welts on the skin.
  • Swelling of the face, tongue, throat or limb.
  • Breathing difficulties.

  • What first aid can I do?

    The first aid for insect bites can include checking the site to see if the insect or their sting is still present, and remove it from the pet if possible. The affected area can be placed in cold water or you can apply a cold compress to soothe the irritation. Seek veterinary attention if your pet is in pain, or if they develop any symptoms of an allergic/anaphylactic reaction – such as hives or swelling around the face which may impact their breathing. Keep the pet calm and seek urgent veterinary care.

    In relation to more chronic skin allergies which may be caused by plants or insects, if you notice that your pet is itching, scratching or their hair coat is changing in anyway, then it is worthwhile to seek veterinary advice for further assessment and management.

    How is it diagnosed?

    Skin allergies in pets are often diagnosed through a clinical examination of the pet, combined with the presence of relevant clinical signs. Specific allergens can be diagnosed through the process of allergy skin testing, which is performed after referral to a veterinary dermatology specialist.

    Skin irritation or anaphylaxis caused by insect bites can often be diagnosed by history of exposure to an insect (such as seeing the pet playing with a bee, or the pet lying on the ground where insects have been seen), or through the presence of clinical symptoms such as hives/welts on the skin or a swollen face. Sometimes your vet may be able to locate a remnant bee/wasp sting on the pet’s skin which can then be removed.

    How can it be treated or managed?

    Skin irritation or anaphylaxis caused by insect bites is usually treated with medications to reduce pain, swelling and inflammation. Depending on the severity or extent of the clinical signs, further supportive treatment can be administered by your vet as needed to counteract the effects of any allergic or anaphylactic reaction.

    Skin allergies in pets will often be treated with a combination of medications and products depending on the extent of presenting clinical signs and after assessment by your vet. The medications can be used to treat inflammation, irritation and any skin infection. This may include injections, tablets or topical medications. Your vet may also recommend other products such as shampoos and fish oil supplements, and they may also discuss other management options to employ at home with your pet. Because pets that suffer from skin allergies are commonly allergic to more than one allergen, your vet may recommend a management plan that also takes into account other possible causes of allergic skin disease including food.

    Your vet may also recommend that your pet visit a veterinary dermatology specialist for allergy skin testing, or for assessment of more complex skin allergy conditions. Allergy skin testing can sometimes result in the use of allergen immunotherapy or desensitisation, to help reduce the pet’s sensitivity to specific allergens.

    Can I prevent it?

    Prevention of skin irritation or anaphylaxis caused by insect bites can be difficult, however during the seasonal times of year when insects such as ants, bees or wasps are more active in your area, it pays to be vigilant with supervising pets outdoors and you can also provide raised beds for them to sleep on to keep the pet up off the ground where insects may be more prevalent.

    Prevention of skin allergies in pets often ties in with the management of skin allergies, in terms of potentially minimising access to any known allergens, or utilising medications to manage symptoms, or desensitisation programs to prevent allergy symptoms progressing in your pet.