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Scratch that cat-A natural approach to the itchy cat

Allergies are a very common cause of dermatitis in cats. Unlike the situation in dogs, allergic cats, while uncomfortable, don't usually scratch themselves. Instead, they groom excessively, causing hair loss on various parts of their bodies, especially the abdomen, groin, and inner thigh areas. Some allergic cats develop scabs on various parts of their bodies (miliary dermatitis) or develop red lesions (eosinophilic lesions.) While skin reactions are usually associated with underlying allergies, any disease in cats can produce similar skin lesions. Diagnostic testing and evaluation by your veterinarian is important before simply assuming that your cat has allergies. Once the diagnosis of allergies is made, an integrative approach to treatment works best. This article will discuss various therapies that can help your itchy cat.


Conventional Therapies

As is true with their canine counterparts, allergic cats are often treated with corticosteroids such as prednisone or antihistamines such as Benadryl or chlorpheniramine. While these drugs can be used safely as part of an integrative approach to treating the allergic cat, more often than not they are unfortunately the only therapies prescribed by many veterinarians.

Corticosteroids very quickly relieve inflammation and itching in allergic cats. The safest way to use corticosteroids is to use an oral form of medication which leaves the body within 24 hours. The lowest effective dose should be used for the shortest amount of time. As a rule, this means that corticosteroids are only given on days when the cat is ”uncomfortably itchy.” Injectable corticosteroids such as methylprednisolone acetate are often used as many owners find it difficult to administer oral medications to their cats. While these very potent injectable formulations can be used a few times each year, it is best to limit their use and use the lowest effective dose. Side effects are more common with these longer acting injectable medications. While their anti-itching effects often wear off in a few weeks, they last in the pet's body for several months and can cause side effects such as depression of the immune system, chronic infections, and diabetes.

Antihistamines are another class of medications that is often used in allergic cats. While they can be effective in some, as is true with dogs they are not as effective as corticosteroids. Additionally, they usually need to be given two or more times per day. If they work however, there are no recognizable serious long term side effects.


Natural Approaches

Except for those rare cats that experience infrequent bouts of itching, most allergic cats will need to be maintained on an integrative approach year-round. There are many natural therapies that can be used, and each veterinarian has his or her own favorite approach and products. Here are some guidelines to help you get started.

While most cats do not have true food allergies, your veterinarian should keep in mind that food allergies are a possible cause of your cat itching. The only good way to check for food allergies is an elimination trial that lasts two to three months. Cats with food allergies are maintained on a diet that does not contain the offending allergens in order to eliminate their itching. All cats can benefit from a natural diet. Most commercial diets contain byproducts and chemicals that increase cell damage which further increases inflammation. Natural diets devoid of these ingredients are fed to your cat as a way to further reduce inflammation which can help heal the pet’s skin.

Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) are one of the most common supplements used in treating the itchy cat. Most cats like the flavor of fish oil; for those who don't, a balanced oil made by RX Vitamins for Pets called Ultra EFA may be preferred as it has a neutral taste. Regardless of the product chosen, high doses (much higher than the label dose) are needed to help the itchy cat. In general, I recommend a starting dose of 500 mg of EPA + DHA one to two times daily.

Antioxidants are very helpful to reduce chemicals (oxidants) that form as a result of cell death. Since cell death increases in allergic cats, additional antioxidants are needed to help the body neutralize the pro-inflammatory oxidizing cell components. Common antioxidants that may be helpful include quercetin, “bioflavonoids,” glutathione, and grapeseed extract.

Herbal therapy can also be very helpful in treating the itchy cat. Herbs come as powders, capsules, or alcoholic extracts. Any can be useful for the itchy cat. Commonly used herbs that reduce inflammation and itchiness include dandelion, burdock, and licorice.

Homeopathics can be very useful in helping the itchy cat. Remedies are available as small pellets or tablets or in a liquid form. Single homeopathic remedies that can be helpful include rhus tox, sulphur, histaminum, graphites, psorinum, and natrum. Combination homeopathic remedies (homotoxicology remedies) made by the Heel corporation that I have found very helpful in treating my allergic patients include Psorinoheel, Heel Allergy, and Zeel (a remedy often used for arthritic pets but which has antihistamine properties.)


Miscellaneous Therapies

It's important to remember that the holistic approach to treating any pet focuses on the pet's entire body and not just the organ system affected or disease is present. Because many cats may absorb extra allergens from their gastrointestinal system, remedies to help heal the gastrointestinal system must be used. Administering healthy bacteria (probiotics) is often indicated in the treatment of the allergic cat for this reason.

Finally, because the liver has to remove pro-inflammatory chemicals and dead cells present in allergic pets which cause itching and inflammation, liver support is often indicated in treating the allergic cat. The best known liver supporting Herb is often used is milk thistle.


What about bathing?

In my opinion, one of the most important things we can do for the itchy pet is to frequently bathe it. Frequent bathing will relieve inflammation, relieve itchiness, disinfect the skin, and remove the foreign proteins (allergens) that are responsible for the pet’s clinical signs. Frequently bathing the pet also reduces the amount of conventional medications that are needed to control the pet’s itching. Ideally you should only use a USDA certified organic shampoo containing healing herbs and oils that is specifically made for frequent bathing in order to minimize irritating the skin and drying it out.

While most of my dog owners don't have problems following this important piece of advice, I can't say the same thing for my cat-owning clients. I know it's extremely difficult to bathe most cats, and this part of my treatment of the allergic cat is often neglected because of this fact. However, if your cat is one that either likes to be bathed or can be bathed without a big fight, just remember that regular bathing will go a long way in helping to heal its damaged skin.

Using an integrative approach, many cat owners will find that they are able to keep their pets healthy and relatively itch-free most of the year. Relying on natural supplements and bathing when possible, most cats will not be sentenced to a life of chronic drug therapy.




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