What is Atopy?
Atopy in your cat, also known as atopic dermatitis, is an allergic response due to your cat either inhaling or coming into physical contact with an allergen producing compound. Atopy may as a result of naturally occurring environmental substances or as a result of household or other chemicals. While in some cats atopy is a seasonal condition, in cases of constant exposure, such as with indoor allergens in the home, symptoms may be present all year. Atopy can cause quite a bit of discomfort for your cat and will often have similar symptoms to other conditions, including parasitic infections. An experienced veterinarian will be able to diagnose the condition and prescribe simple remedies to help alleviate and manage symptoms.
Symptoms of Atopy in Cats
While atopic dermatitis can be quite uncomfortable for your cat, the condition generally is not life-threatening when treated appropriately. Symptoms may vary in severity and may also gradually worsen as exposure to the allergen continues or increases, such as with seasonal atopy. Signs to watch for include:
- Excessive itching
- Excessive licking, especially of paws
- Waxy build up on skin or in ears
- Flaky dry skin
- Bald or red patches of skin
- Putrid open sores in extreme conditions
- Unpleasant odor to fur or skin
- Sores or pimple-like bumps around mouth or chin area
Causes of Atopy in Cats
Atopy in cats is an allergic reaction that causes inflammation of the skin. Inflammation can take many forms and the allergic reaction can have a variety of underlying triggers. Some of the most common causes include:
- Allergic reaction to environmental factors such as mold, pollen, mildew, dust, or mites.
- Breed predisposition
- Genetic or inherited influences
Diagnosis of Atopy in Cats
Diagnosis of atopy in your cat will have several stages. First, since the symptoms of atopy can be similar to those of other conditions, your veterinarian will have to rule out a number of other diseases or separate types of allergic reactions. This process is called a differential diagnosis. For food allergies, your veterinarian may prescribe a restrictive diet that removes and adds in various food ingredients over a period of time. These types of dietary changes can take up to six weeks to take effect and during this time your vet will not be able to prescribe medications that treat symptoms, since identifying the progression of symptoms is an important part of the diagnostic process. It will be very important to closely follow your vet’s recommendations regarding diet during this test.
The other common condition to rule out is allergic reactions due to parasitic infections. Fleas, ticks and mites can all cause similar symptoms to atopy. A thorough physical examination, as well as skin scrapings taken from the ear and examined under a microscope, may help to rule out parasites. Your veterinarian may also prescribe a general parasite preventative regimen such as topical and oral medications.
After ruling out alternative causes, your vet will seek to confirm the diagnosis of atopy and identify the exact allergen or allergens causing the reactions. Positive diagnosis of most dermatological conditions requires a thorough and detailed history from the cat’s owner. Your vet may ask questions regarding any skin issues of other cats in the household and whether atopy has been diagnosed in close relatives of your cat. You should also provide an account, as detailed as possible, of the progression of the symptoms. Of particular importance will be whether the symptoms ebb or gain during particular times of year or when exposed to specific areas of the house or yard.
Several diagnostic tests exist to confirm the exact cause of the atopy. Your vet may take a skin scraping to examine under a microscope. Allergy tests are also available for cats, similar to those that exist for humans. Finally, removal of certain types of materials from the cat’s living area with slow reintroduction may also be helpful in cases which the exact allergy-causing substance is difficult to determine. This may involve eliminating bedding, removing the cat to a kennel environment or limiting access to outdoors for a period of time.
Treatment of Atopy in Cats
Treatment of atopy in your cat will take several routes. The preferred method of treatment is non-medical and involves eliminating the environmental or chemical toxins that are causing your cat’s atopy. This may be as simple as limiting your cat’s exposure to the outdoors or changing the type of laundry detergent used on items your cat may come in contact with.
In cases which the causes of the allergic reaction cannot be removed, your vet may prescribe long-term allergy management medications. Medications such as corticosteroids or antihistamines are effective for managing symptoms but, like many medications, can have an impact on your cat’s organs over time. A procedure called hyposensitization may also be a treatment option for your cat. In this procedure, your cat is given injections of the item causing the allergic reaction under the supervision of your vet. Over time the strength of these injections is increased, desensitizing your cat to the substance. This is effective in 50 to 75 percent of cases and should only be administered under the care of a veterinarian specialized in atopy and allergies in cats.
Recovery of Atopy in Cats
Prognosis for long-term management of atopy in cats is good. While there is no known cure for allergies of any kind, modern medicine and treatment can greatly eliminate the symptoms of atopy and provide relief for your cat. If your cat is receiving prescription treatment, your vet will schedule routine blood and urine tests to confirm all internal organs are functioning properly. With careful management of the symptoms of atopy, your cat will have a long and healthy life.