During the lengthy search for a “hypoallergenic” dog for the Obama family, the spotlight fell on the wheezes and sneezes some pet owners, like the president’s asthma-prone daughter, may experience. But did you know that dogs and cats can suffer from human-related allergies as well?

“We probably see nine and a half dogs for every half a cat,” says Andrew C. Mills, DVM, MPH, of the Veterinary Dermatology and Allergy Centre in Coon Rapids, Minn. But even though cats tend to have fewer allergies than dogs, your feline friend could still be suffering without your knowledge.

Types of Allergies
When a cat is allergic, its immune system reacts badly to a foreign substance. These irritants can be classified into four basic groups:

1. Inhaled Allergy-causing substances that your cat can breathe into its body fall under this category. According to Dr. Mills, such substances include cigarette smoke, dust and mold in homes, and human dander — tiny scales from hair and skin that become part of the environment. In addition, nature itself can contribute to inhaled allergies, especially on a seasonal basis. “Cats can breathe in grass and tree pollen in the spring,” explains Dr. Mills, “and skin is a target organ.” As a result, some cats experience a chronic urge to itch when spring comes into full bloom.

2. Food Bad reactions to something in your pet’s diet are equally troublesome. “Cats aren’t born with food allergies — it’s an acquired thing,” says Dr. Mills. Cats can even develop allergies to food they have enjoyed for a long time, especially proteins. Beef and chicken are the most common culprits, but wheat, soy and dairy products may also irritate certain feline immune systems. These cases can lead to digestive and respiratory disorders, as well as skin irritation. 

3. Fleas Cats can be extremely allergic to flea saliva, a particular concern in spring, when populations of the parasites can explode. One small flea bite can cause a cat to scratch and chew the area intensely, which may lead to a bacterial infection. To find out whether your cat is allergic to fleas, watch for scabs on its rump and around the head and neck.

4. Contact Contact allergies, the least common of the four main types, can occur when your cat comes into contact with anything from flea collars to certain types of fabric, like wool. Felines sensitive to such things may then suffer from skin irritation.

How to Tell — and Treat
If your cat exhibits raw, hairless areas, crusting and scabbing on the skin, or is itching, scratching, licking and biting often, allergies may be the underlying medical issue. To rule out other possible causes, consult a veterinary dermatologist for a kitty allergy exam. “We inject the cat with 60 antigens, or extracts of what the cat could be allergic to. If the cat is allergic to any of these, the skin reacts but does not trigger an allergic reaction,” he shares. The exam will help pinpoint the allergy, and your veterinarian will usually recommend one or more of the following steps:

  • Identify and remove the allergen Allergy tests best identify contact and inhaled types of allergies. The solution may be as simple as removing the allergen, such as ditching a skin-irritating collar and replacing it with something more comfortable for your pet.
  • Bathe your cat and change its bedding Because your cat can absorb substances through its skin, it is important to keep your pet clean. Regular baths, using a hypoallergenic shampoo, will help remove surface allergens and provide relief for your cat. In addition, change bedding monthly to prevent the accumulation of dust mites.
  • Clean house often and quit smoking A clean home environment will keep dust and fleas at bay while ensuring both yours and your cat’s health.
  • Combat fleas before they bite Monthly flea products that are topically applied will kill fleas before they can bite your cat.
  • Schedule regular allergy shots Once specific allergies are identified, small amounts of the antigens can be injected weekly into your cat to reprogram its immune system. There is a 50 percent success rate, with an added 25 percent of all cats showing partial or good responses. 
  • Try antihistamines and cortisone shots Antihistamines are compounds that block histamine — the chemical that causes many allergy symptoms. Cortisone shots offer immediate relief, but prolonged use may cause kidney problems in cats, so it’s best to use them sparingly.
  • Feed a hypoallergenic diet “Because we can’t determine food allergies from skin testing, sometimes it’s useful to try out different foods,” says Dr. Mills. Many foods on the market today target allergies by including proteins and carbohydrates uncommon in cats’ regular diet, such as lamb and barley. Look for high-quality products that also contain fatty acids and linoleic acid, both of which help relieve inflamed skin and restore a healthy coat.

Ultimately, if your cat’s itching and scratching is so severe that it keeps you up at night, it’s time to seek treatment. However, you can help prevent allergies in the first place with a little detective work and professional advice.