SINGAPORE - The past year has been frustrating for Ms Kristine Tan, owner of seven-year-old shih tzu Willa. Something as innocuous as a grass seed would make the dog's paws swell up and become infected, and an ordinary walk is a minefield of unseen enemies that might cause a bad reaction.
Willa has been battling allergies to dust mites, grass and certain foods. In the past few months, the dog has undergone three surgeries, after its allergies led to itching, chewed-up, bleeding and inflamed paws.
"It has been really stressful and expensive, but we just have to constantly deal with it. We love our dog and Willa has the sweetest personality," says Ms Tan, 29, a graphic designer.
Where it is often the case that human beings are allergic to household pets, it is increasingly common - and no less distressing - that one's animal companion suffers allergic reactions to its urban environment.
Dr Travis Jayson, 35, from The Pet Doctors Veterinary Clinic in Pandan Valley, says he has seen a 10 to 20 per cent increase over the last five years in the number of pet owners coming to him with allergy-related problems.
Dr Cathy Chan, 34, veterinarian at The Animal Doctors in Ang Mo Kio, says allergies account for 80 per cent of the pets she sees with skin problems.
"Allergies are common in pets worldwide," says Dr Brian Loon, 31, principal veterinary surgeon at Amber Veterinary Practice in Siglap. "Skin-related allergy problems are more common in warm and humid climates, so I feel that the prevalence is high all year round in tropical climates such as Singapore."
The veterinarians say a pet's allergies can be caused by the environment, diet, flea bites, stress and poor breeding practices at breeding farms.
Says Dr Jayson: "The continuous use of genetically flawed parents can produce offspring that are pre-disposed to genetically related allergy diseases."
Some common symptoms of pet allergies include itching, inflamed skin; skin that is dry and flaky or greasy with odour; chronic ear infections; and chronic conjunctivitis. Dr Loon adds that signs of gastro-intestinal allergies include diarrhoea, blood in the stools and vomiting.
While the symptoms are evident and appear treatable, veterinarians say these are secondary.
"If the primary causes of the allergy are not identified and tackled, the symptoms will most definitely recur after treatment," says Dr Jayson.
That said, the veterinarians whom Life! spoke to say it is hard to pinpoint the primary cause or causes.
Says Dr Chan: "It is like a human who has eczema. You rarely find the exact cause. Identifying the allergy and managing it is a long and costly process. There is no quick fix.
"Besides, an animal can grow out of an allergy, but a new allergen could come up as it grows older."
Dr Simon Quek, 40, veterinarian at the Mount Pleasant Animal Medical Centre's Clementi branch, adds that allergies cannot be cured.
"An allergy is an inherited disorder. It cannot be cured, but can be kept well under control with proper management and treatment."