Scratching out pet allergies

Ms Kristine Tan and her husband Nicholas Wilder's shih tzu Willa wears socks to prevent things such as grass seeds from triggering its allergies.

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."

This can begin only after the pet owners take their pets for a check-up at a vet.

There are blood and intra-dermal tests that can be done to detect environmental allergens and flea bite allergies. These could cost up to $600 a test.

Ms Tan's shih tzu, Willa, went through such tests, which came back positive for dust mites and grass. The couple subsequently bought socks for their pet to wear at home and on walks. Willa also wears a cone around its neck most of the time, to prevent it from chewing on its paws.

"We hired someone to clean our house of dust mites and bought dust mite covers that cost about $400 for our mattress," says Ms Tan's husband, Nicholas Wilder, a 33-year-old copywriter.

While there are no blood tests to be done for food allergies, veterinarians say diet trials can be run to detect these. A trial can cost $150 a month for a 5 to 10kg dog, says Dr Quek.

Each diet trial could take at least two months to complete, and involve exposing the pet to a novel protein or carbohydrate that it does not usually consume, such as frog, crocodile or rabbit meat and sweet potato.

If the pet responds positively to the new food items, it is possible that it could have a food allergy. In order to confirm this, the pet needs to be "re-challenged" by being re-introduced to its old diet, says Dr Quek. If it breaks out into an allergic reaction, then it is clear that the animal has a food allergy.

Some pet owners, however, choose to stick with the novel protein that is newly introduced to their pet - even though the meat does not come cheap.

Ms Tan introduced Willa to rabbit meat and found that her pet's skin condition and fur quality improved.

Purchasing the meat was difficult though. They used to get four rabbit legs a week for $50 from Huber's Butchery in Dempsey Hill. However, the butchery sometimes did not have stock. They now buy bags of frozen rabbit nuggets from a pet store. Each bag costs $48 and lasts about a week.

"It's really expensive, but Willa loves eating it," says Ms Tan.

Student Audrey Koh, 19, believes it was the introduction of certain proteins that caused her shih tzu Candy to develop food allergies.

"I always fed her pork, but realised she would start scratching herself when I fed her a bit of chicken or beef," she says.

When she kept Candy to a diet of pork and some salmon, she says her pet's skin condition "improved tremendously".

In addition to a diet change, she also switched to using a medicated shampoo for Candy, which she says further alleviated her pet's infections which used to result from her allergies.

Veterinarians say pet owners need to exercise patience and compliance when it comes to handling their pets' allergies.

"Diet trials should be followed strictly and medications kept up to date," says Dr Quek.

"With allergies, the vet is able to only give you a plan. You need to carry out the trial. Good vet-to-owner communication is important. If owners are well aware of the purpose of the trials and medication, they are more likely to follow the treatment plan, which would result in better success in managing the allergies."

Apart from Ms Koh's case, another positive example of a pet that has its allergies under control is 10-year-old Scottish terrier Toro.

When Toro turned a year old, its owner Wong Ching Yee found that it would scratch around its eyes until the skin around them broke and bled.

Visits to the vet revealed that Toro was suffering from environment-related allergies. After experimenting with different diets and treatments for three years, Ms Wong says her pet's condition has stabilised, although Toro remains on long-term medication.

"The whole process of trying to figure out what is wrong is problematic. You are not sure of what to do, or who to believe because different vets recommend different approaches," says Ms Wong, 35, a manager at a broadcast company.

"I decided to rely on one vet and go with that course of action. At the end of the day, the pet owner has to decide what works best."

brynasim@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Lydia Vasko

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