Recognizing, Preventing, and Treating Pets’ Allergies and Toxic Encounters

Tuesday May 10th, 2022

Recognizing, Preventing, and Treating Pets’ Allergies and Toxic Encounters: Achoo! Allergies May be Afflicting Your Furry Friends

By Jeffrey Richard, Jameson Volunteer

Allergies are common among animals, and allergens are everywhere – especially now during the height of spring and agricultural activities. As with many people, pets may be sensitive or allergic to grasses, dust mites, mold, pollen and other allergens that float through the air. Reactions to environmental allergens can appear in a variety of ways such as sneezing, paw licking, scratching of the ears and skin, watery eyes, and runny nose.


Pets may also have food sensitivities that result in allergic symptoms. Some pets may be allergic to specific proteins found in beef, dairy, wheat or chicken. Allergic reactions to food may include skin irritation, digestive issues, and even respiratory problems in more severe cases.


Please be aware that pets may be allergic to things we bring into their homes, such as fragrances, cleaning products, candles, and laundry detergent, to name just a few. Cats and dogs are particularly sensitive to fragrance agents. By avoiding use of scented cat litter, scented cleaning liquids and sprays, perfumes, scented deodorizers (other than baking soda), and scented candles, we can largely eliminate fragrance-related allergic symptoms. And using fragrance-free detergent to wash your pets’ bedding (and your own bed linens if they sleep with you) will help minimize their exposure to aggravating fragrances.


Many cats and dogs are also extremely sensitive to flea saliva and even one bite can trigger severe itching. When they scratch their itch, they may break the skin and cause infection.  Accordingly, regular applications of a preventative flea treatment are essential to your cat or dog’s health. 


Other insect-caused allergic reactions can be even more serious. For example, animals who suffer from an allergy to bee stings may, if stung, exhibit redness, hives, or swelling at the sting area, sometimes accompanied by severe reactions such as vomiting, collapse, and difficulty breathing. Such symptoms may also occur as a result of bites or stings from ticks, spiders, deer flies, horseflies, blackflies, mosquitoes, ants, hornets, and wasps. Obviously, if your pet exhibits any of those severe symptoms, please seek veterinary assistance immediately. 


Even for less serious allergic reactions, however, it is best to have a veterinarian examine the animal to determine the source of the symptoms and to recommend a course of treatment. The veterinarian’s recommendations, depending on the allergen involved, may include use of special antibacterial or antifungal shampoo, ear flushes, antibiotics, steroid treatment, and itch relief medication, among other possible remedies. In some cases, the treatment may turn out to be simple and relatively inexpensive through use of over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl or Claritin. On the other hand, if the pet suffers from severe or chronic allergies, allergy shots may be recommended.


If your pet’s symptoms are relatively mild and the cost of veterinary treatment is prohibitive (or to complement the treatments recommended by the vet), there are certain things that you can do in your home that may help. These steps may include using HEPA air filters in the home’s HVAC system, cleaning fabric surfaces regularly, using shampoos that contain oatmeal, adding probiotics to the pet’s diet, and having the pet wear a shirt or sweater to reduce the effect of scratching. Cats – and to a lesser extent, dogs – frequently clean themselves by licking and gnawing on their paws and other body parts. As a result, they can easily breathe in or ingest allergens that they may have picked up on their paws or coat. Consequently, you can help reduce allergic reactions through daily wiping of the pet’s paws and body with a clean wet cloth.


Protect Your Garfield and Odie From Toxic Plants

Do your dogs or cats worry you by nosing into (or chewing on) plants or grasses outside? Ultimately, there is no way to be completely worry-free.  But knowing what plants in your yard or neighborhood are toxic to cats and dogs should help you keep your pets safe. 


The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has created a list of plants that are toxic to dogs and cats (linked below) and describes the list as follows:


“This list contains plants that have been reported as having systemic effects on animals and/or intense effects on the gastrointestinal tract. Please note that the information contained in our plant lists is not meant to be all-inclusive, but rather a compilation of the most frequently encountered plants. Individual plants may differ in appearance from the photos used on our listings. Please be sure to check the name of the plant to determine its toxicity.


“Also, be advised that the consumption of any plant material may cause vomiting and gastrointestinal upset for dogs and cats. Plants listed as either non-toxic, or potentially toxic with mild GI upset as their symptoms are not expected to be life-threatening to your pets.


“If you believe that your animal is ill or may have ingested a poisonous substance, or if you have any further questions regarding the information contained in this database, contact either your local veterinarian or the APCC 24-hour emergency poison hotline at 1-888-426-4435.”


The ASPCA’s list of plants toxic to dogs (and its accompanying list of plants that are non-toxic)

The ASPCA’s lengthy list of plants toxic to cats (and accompanying list of plants that are non-toxic)  

You should first determine the names of plants that are in your pet’s environment by using one of the plant-identifier phone Apps such as “Picture This” or “iNaturalist.”  Then cross-check the plants against the ASPCA lists linked above.  It may surprise you to find just how many plants pose a risk of toxicity to your pets. Here are just two examples of commonly grown plants that your pets should avoid:


Lilies of the Field

Though beautiful this time of year, all lilies are very dangerous to cats, and at least one type is toxic to dogs. The common names for lilies toxic to cats include Easter Lilies, Stargazer Lilies, and Tiger Lilies. Calla Lilies are toxic to dogs and cats.


The entire lily plant is toxic: the stem, leaves, flowers, pollen, and even the water in a vase. Ingesting any part of the lily or the water in which it is kept can cause your cat to develop fatal kidney failure in fewer than three days. Dogs that eat lilies other than Calla Lilies may have minor stomach upset but they don’t develop kidney failure. If you suspect your pet has ingested any part of a lily plant, seek treatment immediately. Delaying treatment by even 18 hours can mean irreversible kidney failure or even death.


Mums for Mom?

According to SFGate, Chrysanthemums are another beautiful flower that are toxic to cats and dogs (and horses), but especially to cats. Typically located within the leaves and flower heads of these plants, sesquiterpene lactones (SQL) can irritate the eyes, nose and gastrointestinal tract. If cats ingest part of a chrysanthemum flower, they may experience vomiting, diarrhea, excessive drooling (also known as hypersalivation), loss of coordination, and lack of appetite. 


Don’t Diffuse the Issue – Many Essential Oils Are Toxic to Dogs and Cats*

Although some essential oils can be calming to humans and pets, before you expose your pet to the oil through use of a diffuser (or by some other method), please consult your veterinarian as to whether the oil may be harmful to your pet. A number of essential oils are extremely toxic when diffused or applied directly to a pet’s skin. A pet’s reaction to toxic essential oils can include difficulty breathing or walking, drooling, muscle tremors, pawing at the face or mouth, rash, vomiting, or collapse.


In its May 2020 blog, the Kennel to Couch website publicized the findings of research on the effect of essential oils on dogs:

“For years, certain essential oils were considered safe for dogs and were often recommended for use in treating everything from stress and ear mite infestations to upper respiratory problems. But recently, some studies have shown that essential oils can be toxic to dogs, whether taken internally, applied to their skin or simply inhaled. The liver is the organ most negatively affected, and unlike ours, dogs’ livers lack the ability to properly metabolize the various compounds found in essential oils.


“A partial list of the essential oils to be avoided includes oil of cinnamon, citrus, pennyroyal, peppermint, pine, sweet birch, tea tree (melaleuca), wintergreen and ylang ylang. If ingested or applied directly to the skin, these essential oils can damage your dog’s skin and even induce seizures.


“Dog toxicity can either occur very quickly, following a single internal or external application or over a longer period of time — through repeated or continuous inhalation of the essential oils. Either way, it can cause serious damage to the liver and, and in some instances, even lead to death. Should your dog accidentally ingest ANY oil, rush him to the vet immediately.”


Similarly, the Pet Poison Helpline website describes the toxicity risks of certain essential oils to cats:

“Essential oils can pose a toxic risk to household pets, especially to cats. They are rapidly absorbed both orally and across the skin, and are then metabolized in the liver. Cats lack an essential enzyme in their liver and as such have difficulty metabolizing and eliminating certain toxins like essential oils. Cats are also very sensitive to phenols and phenolic compounds, which can be found in some essential oils. The higher the concentration of the essential oil (i.e. 100%), the greater the risk to the cat.


“Essential oils that are known to cause poisoning in cats include oil of wintergreen, oil of sweet birch, citrus oil (d-limonene), pine oils, Ylang Ylang oil, peppermint oil, cinnamon oil, pennyroyal oil, clove oil, eucalyptus oil, and tea tree oil. Symptoms that develop depend on the type of oil involved in the exposure and can include drooling, vomiting, tremors, ataxia (wobbliness), respiratory distress, low heart rate, low body temperature, and liver failure.”


Another blog includes the following admonitions and lists of unsafe oils:

“Any essential oil has the potential to be harmful to pets, especially if not properly diluted or if used inappropriately. The lists below contain some of the most commonly misused essential oils causing issues for cats and dogs. (This is not a comprehensive list and you should ask your veterinarian about any essential oil prior to considering using it with your pet.)

“Essential oils that are unsafe for cats:

  • Basil
  • Citrus oils (bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange, tangerine)
  • Birch
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Tea tree (Melaleuca)
  • Oregano
  • Peppermint
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Spearmint
  • Wintergreen

“Essential oils that are unsafe for dogs:

  • Tea tree (Melaleuca)
  • Sweet birch
  • Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
  • Pennyroyal (Mentha Pulegium)
  • Wintergreen (Gaultheria Procumbens)

* Jameson Humane has done no independent research regarding essential oils, and urges you to consult with your veterinarian before using any essential oils around your pets.