Atopy is a syndrome that is characterised by a tendency to be “hyperallergic". When animals’ immune systems get hyper-sensitised to allergens, they suffer from skin allergies and symptoms known as atopy.
It’s a frustrating disease to diagnose and treat because of the enormous range of possible contributing allergens. I once had a client whose dog suffered for years with terrible skin allergies, which suddenly went away when she redecorated and got rid of one of her sofas. Her dog had seemingly been allergic to that particular sofa, but without removing each item of furniture how on earth would you test for this?
Your fabric softener, your floor cleaner, your deodorant, your air freshener, your carpet or rugs - each individual item of furniture (even the throw cushions on your sofa) could be contributing to this problem. And that’s just inside the house; imagine the world of irritants that await your pet outdoors. Plus, what your pet is allergic to can change with time, making atopy a moving target.
Keep reading as we break down atopy for your even further…
A Cumulative Effect
Atopy is not usually caused by an allergy to one thing, but rather a cumulative effect of a hypersensitivity to many different environmental factors.
I often describe an itchy dog as being like a person in tears. Tears can be caused by one big tragedy, like the loss of a loved one. But they can also be the outcome of lots of smaller, less significant things that have happened. For example, your boss told you off, you broke the screen on your phone, your wallet was stolen, then you miss your bus home and suddenly you’re at the bus stop crying. Of course, missing the bus wouldn’t usually have brought on tears, but the accumulation of smaller things going wrong all added up is beyond what you feel like you can cope with today. Similarly, allergies can be a severe allergy to one thing, but usually are the cumulative effect of several less severe allergies. Once the ‘pile’ of allergies accumulates beyond what we call “the threshold”, you will see clinical signs of allergies as listed in our blog “Signs That Your Dog Has Atopy”.
This also means that removing enough allergies from the ‘pile’ to drop it below the threshold should lessen the symptoms.
Managed, but not cured
Ideally controlling allergies is aimed at preventing exposure to the things that your pet is allergic to, but this can be tough in the case of atopy without placing them in a sterile bubble. Your pet’s immune system will always be susceptible to overreacting to the normal environment around it, so this condition will never be ‘cured’ but rather managed to control the symptoms.
Although the most important part of trying to manage atopy is trying to restrict contact with allergens, it is very important that inflammation and secondary bacterial and yeast infections are treated effectively. Don’t be alarmed by your vet prescribing medications, they are not just treating the symptoms and ignoring the cause - both need addressing.
There is a chance that your pet may need antibiotics for several weeks to clear up deep skin infections.
Opportunistic bacterial and yeast infections are common. When the skin is inflamed, it is not able to resist infection from the normal bacteria and yeasts that live on the skin as usual. These are usually not nasty, contagious infections, but germs that are usually found on the skin, and have been allowed to cause an infection due to the skin being unhealthy. These infections are usually easily managed, but can need lengthy antibiotic courses. If you leave these infections untreated, these bugs will continue to aggravate the skin.
Inflammation can be a vicious cycle. Inflammatory cells release chemicals that attract more inflammatory cells to the area, and these in turn release more of these chemicals and so on. Often, well after the initial cause of the inflammation has gone, the inflammatory cycle will continue. Add to this inflammatory cycle the fact that the inflammation will cause your pet to be itchy and to scratch or chew at the skin (causing further inflammation), and you can see why this cycle often needs pharmaceutical intervention. This is why vets will often prescribe ‘steroids’.
Short course steroids (up to a few weeks) are used sporadically to settle the skin down during periods when allergies have flared-up. They are very unlikely to have any ill effects for your pet and are a very effective tool to keep them comfortable. Long-term steroid use is a slightly different beast, so to speak, and is something I only recommend for my patients if all other avenues have been unsuccessful or if there are financial or owner compliance constraints.
Even a well-managed atopy case can have flare-ups at certain times of the year, such as when seasonal allergens, like pollens, are more abundant. Talk to your vet about what steps to take during these times.
This condition is hereditary, as can be seen by the fact that certain breeds and family lines having high incidents of atopy. It’s not recommended to breed pets that suffer with this condition. If you’re buying a puppy from a breeder, consider this condition when assessing the parents – do they scratch a lot, have a yeasty smell, or have pinkish-brown stained paws from chronic licking? If so, it’s advised to consider an alternative breed.