Questions for Dr. Shawn - Allergies, Steroids, Supplements, Fish Oil
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"Dear Dr. Shawn:
My husband and I have a 3-year-old labrador retriever named Molly. Unfortunately, she has allergies. Her doctor continues to prescribe steroids for her, and we are concerned about the long term side effects to Molly. Are there any natural alternatives we could use?"
Corticosteroids ("steroids") such as prednisone and prednisolone are frequently used when treating allergic dogs and cats. While chronic steroid use has many potential side effects that can harm your pet, using low doses for short periods of time can be done safely without long term harm to Molly. However, whenever possible, natural alternatives would be better choices to help control her itchy skin. Here are some suggestions taken from my book The Allergy Solution for Dogs (Prima, 2000.)
Acupuncture can be used to reducing itching or stimulate the pet's immune system. The number of acupuncture treatments that a pet will require varies, but usually owners are asked to commit to 8 treatments (2-3/wk) to assess if acupuncture will work. If the pet improves, acupuncture is done "as needed" to control the pet's signs.
Homeopathy uses extremely dilute substances to treat the pet. There is no one right remedy, and a thorough examination, history, and laboratory tests must be performed to assist the homeopathic veterinarian in selecting the correct remedy or remedies. The following remedies may be helpful:Sulfur, Apis. Mel., Rhus. Tox., Urtica, and Arsenicum Album.
For pets with allergies, supplementation with super green foods, enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil,) antioxidants, and whole food glandular products can be effective. I don't usually use any one supplements but combine several to help improve the pet's nutritional health, relieve pain, inflammation, and itching. See my list of recommended supplement companies.
Certain vitamins (A, C, and E) and minerals (selenium) can act as antioxidants. By increasing the level of natural vitamin and mineral antioxidants, we may be able to prevent decrease inflammation, pain, and itching.
The most important therapy for pets with allergies is frequent bathing with hypoallergenic shampoos, such as those containing aloe vera and oatmeal. I recommend bathing at least 2-3 times per week for maintenance, and sometimes daily bathing for pets with severe allergies.
In conclusion, steroids such as prednisone and prednisolone can be used successfully and safely in pets with allergies. If steroids are needed, they should ideally be used infrequently, on an as-needed basis. Long term treatment should focus on using acupuncture, homeopathy, and nutritional supplements. These are safe, effective, and can help provide nutrients to the pet with inflammation and itching."
Dear Dr. Shawn:
"My dog Fred, a 12 year old cocker spaniel, has pretty bad allergies. So far, his doctor has given him steroid shots every few months. I’m concerned about long term side effects from the steroid shots. Is there any natural alternative to help him?"
"Allergies are very common in dogs and cats. Pets like Fred are usually allergic to all of the foreign proteins (allergens) in their environments, including various pollens, molds, and house dust mites. They itch after inhaling these allergens or absorbing them through their skin. While short term use of corticosteroids (“steroids”) can be helpful, commonly seen side effects include eating more, drinking more, urinating more, and occasional personality changes such as depression or even aggression Long acting injectable shots can cause major problems such as obesity, diabetes, adrenal disease, osteoporosis, and increased infections. I prefer to use oral prednisone only on very itchy days. Antigen shots can also be tried. However, it takes at least 12 months to determine their effectiveness, and only about 60-70% of pets actually respond to these expensive injections that must usually be given for life.
More natural therapies are often quite helpful. Here are some tips to get you started.
First, start by feeding the proper diet. Minimizing harmful byproducts and chemicals is essential in preventing further inflammation and itching in allergic pets. Choose one of the many natural diets that are available.
Second, minimize the number of vaccines that Fred gets. Doing so decreases the number of antigens (foreign proteins) in his body. I recommend an annual blood antibody test called a titer test to determine if and when Fred might need vaccinations.
Third, minimize other toxins such as chemical flea and tick control products. Fourth, regular bathing (sometimes daily until the itching is controlled) with aloe vera and oatmeal shampoos are very helpful and will not dry out Fred’s skin. Supplements that may be of benefit include fish oil (omega 3 fatty acids,) antioxidants, homeopathics such as sulfur, and herbs such as nettles, burdock, aloe vera, and dandelion. Work with Fred’s doctor to find which supplements work best. In my practice, I tell owners it may take 6-12 months to find the right combination of diet, supplements, and herbs and homeopathics that will keep allergic pets comfortably itchy.
Another condition older dogs like Fred get that is commonly treated with steroids is arthritis. As is true with allergies, rare use of steroids can be helpful, but chronic use is definitely harmful. Instead, supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid, bowellia, white willow bark, and even fish oil are very helpful and don’t cause the side effects seen with steroids.
Here’s the moral of this story: steroids can be helpful, even life saving, when used properly. When used incorrectly, we only make the original problem worse and add several more problems that must be treated. For pets like Fred with allergies, arthritis, or other inflammatory conditions, more natural therapies are usually safer and should be the main therapies for chronic treatment of these conditions.”
Dear Dr. Shawn:
"I’m worried. As spring approaches I know that my dog Harley will experience a flare-up of his allergies again. I hate the thought of giving him steroids again this year, as I’m nervous about the side effects that can occur. Do you have any suggestions?"
"As a veterinarian who sees many dogs and cats with allergies, I know just how difficult this time of year can be for many pet owners (who often suffer with seasonal allergies themselves!) Allergies can be a common source of discomfort for many pets. Typically these affected dogs and cats have very itchy skin: they bite, lick, excessively groom, and chew at various body parts. Sometimes these itchy pets also have secondary bacterial or yeast infections. In my practice I’m also seeing some pets that have respiratory signs (sneezing, runny eyes, runny nose) similar to those that occur in people with hay fever. Regardless of the clinical signs, controlling these signs is important in order to keep the pet comfortable.
Here are some suggestions that may help.
1. Feed a natural diet to minimize toxins (byproducts and chemicals) that can make the allergy signs worse.
2. Don’t vaccinate pets when they are itchy or sneezing, and preferably only vaccinate pets based upon results of vaccine titer blood tests.
3. Minimize extraneous toxins such as chemical flea and tick products. These products should only be used if really needed.
4. Bathe allergic pets frequently. For most of my patients that means daily for 3-7 days and then at least 2-3 times weekly to keep these pets “comfortably itchy.” I recommend an aloe vera and colloidal oatmeal shampoo.
5. A number of supplements can be useful to help itchy pets. My favorites are…
- Ultra EFA - a potent fish oil supplement that reduces inflammation and itching.
- Proanthozone - a wonderful antioxidant that decreases itching and inflammation by inhibiting oxidation and acting as a natural antihistamine.
- Vim & Vigor - a balance health maintenance formula that contains tryptophan which makes pets less itchy at night.
Finally, while steroids can have side effects (including increased infections, weight gain, liver disease, etc.,) they can be used safely if used correctly. I use very low doses of oral prednisone if the pet is uncomfortable, and then only on an as-needed basis. I hope this overview of allergy treatment helps. In my practice, using this protocol drastically reduces the amount of steroid that my patients require, which makes them healthy as well as non-itchy!”
Dear Dr. Shawn:
"I’ve heard that fish oil can help with allergies. My Labrador Brutus, who has been diagnosed with allergies, itches all of the time. I’ve been giving him 1 fish oil capsule twice daily but he still itches. Should I give him more?"
"Allergies are very common in Labrador retrievers. Those more severely affected itch a lot, similar to Brutus. I applaud your desire to try using natural therapies to help him. In my practice, a combination of natural therapies and low dose medication (given only on really itchy days) works great for most of my allergic patients. Fish oil, specifically, the EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, are potent anti-inflammatory and anti-itching ingredients. However, they must be given at high doses (much higher than the label dosage) in order to be effective. The label dose is usually good to maintain a healthy coat and skin but is way too low to help treat medical problems. I generally recommend 1500-2000 mg per day of EPA+DHA. You’ll need to find a potent product so that you don’t have to give Brutus too many capsules (most fish oil products have less than 500 mg of the omega-3’s per pill.)
I would also recommend frequent bathing with a good aloe vera and oatmeal product. Other products I use for allergic pets include Vim & Vigor by Pet Togethers (one of the companies for whom I consult) and Proanthozone. Various herbs (Silerex, Total-Inflam, Sino-Allergy, DTX Allergy) and homeopathics (Heel Allergy, Sulfur) may also be needed. Treating allergies involves an individualized approach, and each pet will respond to a different protocol. Good luck!"
Dear Dr. Shawn:
Everybody is talking about giving Omega3 supplement to dogs. Can I just give him the same supplement that I take? Also, is it ok for him to eat shrimp and clams and all sorts of fish? Is there any sea food that dogs should never eat? Thank you for your help.
”This is a question I get asked a lot. First, I would make sure that you are taking a high quality supplement. There are many companies which now make supplements, but in my opinion many of them are not making quality products. Therefore, I would make sure that the product you use has been recommended by your own doctor.
To answer your question, assuming that the product you use is a high quality product, there is no difference between “people” fatty acids and “pet” fatty acids. However, I usually prefer pet products for a few reason. First, they are specifically formulated for pets. Second, many pet products are often formulated in a flavored base which makes is easier to give to your pet. Finally, the products are made in the correct dose for pets, which also makes them cost effective. The best way to compare cost is to look at the “per dose” cost, not the “per product” cost. While one product may cost less than another product, it’s been my experience that more of the cheaper product may need to be given per day, which actually makes the “cheaper” product cost more on a “per dose” basis.”
Dear Dr. Shawn:
"My dog is scratching a lot on her belly & chest. She also has some raw areas from scratching and chewing. What can I put on the spots or to alleviate the itching? Will bathing help? What should I use?"
"It sounds like she has some sort of allergic dermatitis. I approach these cases by treating the pet topically/locally, as well as systemically (treating her orally to help her heal so she stops itching.) Topically bathing is important; the more the better. A shampoo containing ingredients like aloe vera and colloidal oatmeal is very helpful to control itching and inflammation; try to bathe her every 1-2 days to control her itching. Local topical control with aloe vera ointment or lotion is also helpful on the raw areas.
Systemically she will need a good natural diet plus supplements to decrease her itchiness. Supplements can include a health maintenance formula, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, herbs, and homeopathics. If really needed, short term use of medications like prednisone or an antihistamine can be used for a few days without harming her. Most of the pets I see with allergies respond very well to this natural approach. Success doesn’t come overnight, but long term my patients are healthier and have fewer medical problems as we rarely need conventional medications to control itching. Readers can contact me (email only) for my handout on natural allergy treatment."
Dear Dr. Shawn:
"I enjoy reading your column and have used your advice to help several of my pets. Here’s my current problem. I have a 5 year old female Siamese cat who seems to groom and scratch herself excessively—even to the point that some of the fur is coming off the back of her legs. Why is she doing this? Is she just itchy? And is there any way I can get her to stop? She currently eats a prescription diet for bladder problems."
"Itching and scratching excessively is very common in dogs but much less common in cats. There are many potential causes for this problem, but the following 4 are among the most common.
Most itchy pets are allergic to environmental allergens. Frequent bathing with hypoallergenic shampoos containing aloe vera and oatmeal is very important. I recommend bathing every 1-2 days during the itchy season, and then as-needed the rest of the year. This step, while very important in controlling allergies, is not always possible in many cats due to their nature.
Giving the allergic pet various supplements like antioxidants, fatty acids, herbs, and homeopathics can reduce the need for medications such as corticosteroids and antihistamines. These supplements act like conventional medications and are very helpful in reducing inflammation and itching.
While true food allergies are rare, a natural diet can help some pets, and the food you are currently feeding is not one I recommend. Too many cats and dogs are placed on “prescription diets” when they really don’t need these and would be better served by a more natural diet devoid of by-products and chemical preservatives and additives. A better diet is always indicated even if the pet doesn’t get better simply by switching diets, as a better diet will go a long way to contributing to health and minimizing disease and reducing inflammation in the pet’s body. If your doctor suspects a food allergy, a feeding trial for 8-12 weeks must be done using a special diet (blood testing for food allergies, while often performed, is not accurate.)
In many parts of the country, fleas and other external parasites bother the pet and cause chronic itching. Pets with environmental allergies scratch even more when infested with fleas or other parasites. The presence of fleas, flea dirt, or tapeworms confirms this diagnosis.
There is a behavioral/emotional component to itching in may pets. This is difficult to diagnose, but should be suspected in the itchy pet which does not respond fully to the correct therapy. I often add a calming supplement to my treatment regimen for itchy pets and find good results in a number of my patients.
Most of my itchy pets respond to a holistic approach to treatment using the approach I have described. The most important thing is to get a proper diagnosis at the start of treatment. Good luck.”
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