What is atopy?
Atopic skin disease is an allergic reaction to usually innocuous substances; these can be anything from grass pollens to house mites. It causes the skin to be very itchy and uncomfortable.
Can cats become atopic?
In a word… yes! The condition is more commonly seen in dogs, but cats can also develop this allergic skin disease. Interestingly, it appears to be more prevalent in cats with orange in their coats, such as gingers and tortoiseshells. Usually the condition begins when the cat is still under a year old, but is not seen in kittens.
What are the signs of atopy?
The signs of atopy in cats are related to the fact that their skin is very itchy;
● Pruritus – this means itchiness. Your cat will show signs of skin discomfort by scratching and licking at itself.
● Alopecia – hair loss is often seen from the animal interfering with areas of pruritic skin. Commonly, cats will get atopy of the hocks, and can also have facial itching leading to areas of balding around the eyes and at the tips of their ears.
● Otitis – inflammation of the ear canals is, again, far more common in dogs than in cats. However, cats with atopy generally present with inflammation of the ear canal, and excessive wax.
● Miliary dermatitis – a common sign of allergic reactions in cats, this involves the formation of little hard swellings or scabs in the skin, typically around the head.
What is the diagnosis and treatment of atopy?
Atopy is rare in cats, therefore, your veterinarian will want to rule out other, more commonly seen, causes of pruritic kitties. These include:
● Ectoparasites, such as fleas or mites. The vet will need to know what products you use, and when, for parasite control. They will also inspect the skin for evidence of flea-dirt. Flea allergic dermatitis and the presence of mites can appear very similar to atopy.
● Pemphigus foliaceus is a rare autoimmune condition which presents as blistering of the skin in cats.
● Malassezia dermatitis is a dermatitis caused by a yeast which is commonly seen in dogs. Again, it is rare in cats, but perhaps more prevalent in Persian populations.
● Bacterial pyoderma; this is a bacterial infection of the skin. Certain breeds of dogs with dramatic folding of the skin, such as the Shar-pei, are far more commonly affected than the cat, but it is important to rule out any infectious causes of itching and hair-loss before commencing potentially immunosuppressive treatments.
● Food hypersensitivities. Your veterinarian may advise trying a hypoallergenic food trial, as often food sensitivities can manifest as dermatological issues.
My vet thinks it is atopy – what next?
A potential test which veterinarians can do is intradermal testing, which involves testing how the skin reacts to potential allergens (things which stimulate the hypersensitivity reaction in cats, causing atopy). This involves injecting these allergens into the skin, and recording the extent of the inflammation response.
Additionally, veterinarians may advise a period of eliminating potential allergens, and monitoring the response; if the cat greatly improves when kept indoors, for example, it is likely that the offending allergen is from an outdoor source.
Treatments for atopy, when a diagnosis has been attained, therefore include:
● Avoiding the allergens! Where possible, minimising your cat’s exposure to household allergens such as dust and mites can really help reduce the severity of the itching.
● Immunotherapy. This involves modulating the immune system in a way to desensitise it to the allergens it is reacting to. Typically, this is achieved with specialised, custom-made vaccines to help your cat build up tolerance to allergens.
● Supplementation. Omega-3 fatty acids may aid the skin health and coat quality; be aware, though, that other omegas can exacerbate the itch, such as omega-6!
● Corticosteroids. Corticosteroids can reduce the severity of the immune response which the cat launches against allergens, and greatly reduce the itching which your cat experiences. They do come with side-effects, such as increased eating and drinking and immunosuppression; your veterinarian will taper the steroids to the minimum effective dose to minimise the risk of side-effects.
● Antihistamines. Antihistamines are generally more efficacious in controlling allergic skin in cats than they are in dogs.
● Immunosuppressants, such as ciclosporin, are generally the mainstay of management in dogs. In cats, there are other options as well, but these drugs are invaluable in many cases.
We wish you and your cat a happy and itch-free time together!
“Time spent with cats is never wasted” – Sigmund Freud