The Outside/In[box]: Do Animals Get Seasonal Allergies?
Every other Friday on Morning Edition, the Outside/In team answers a question from a listener about the natural world.
This week, Kristin from Portsmouth has a question about allergies: “So this Spring [was] particularly rough for me and it got me wondering if animals also experience allergies or it’s just us humans. Thanks!”
In order to answer this question definitively, we’ll have to alter the wording a little: do some animals experience allergies? Most certainly they do. And the animals for whom we can say this confidently are the ones we spend the most time with: our pets.
Elia Tait Wojno, assistant professor of immunology at the University of Washington, says, “Dogs can be allergic to pollen, dogs can be allergic to food, dogs can be allergic to human dander believe it or not — so dogs can be allergic to you.”
I can hear you scratching your scalp uncomfortably, thinking “Human dander?” Yes, that may sound gross but keep in mind that dander is just the word for the ubiquitous flakes of skin that feathered, furred, and hairy animals are constantly shedding into the environment. Basically it's the same thing as dandruff, only too small to see.
Anyway, these microscopic skin flakes (and other potential allergens) can mistakenly trigger an immune response in animals, just like they do in humans. But how this immune response is expressed can be quite different.
Both people and pets with allergies may experience increased sneezing, itchy eyes, and fatigue. But for many animals, the worst symptoms are dermatological.
Norma White-Weithers is a veterinary dermatologist in New York City who specializes in pet allergies. She’s seen this sort of thing enough to imagine it from the animal’s perspective: “I would explain it as ‘I want to get rid of my skin because it hurts.’”
Sometimes, pets with allergies will lick, bite, and scratch their skin clean off — leaving raw, red, hairless patches on their paws, armpits, bellies, and groins.
“And they will go underneath your furniture and rub their backs,” says Dr. White-Weithers.
However, diagnosis is pretty much the same (pets and people will both sometimes get what’s called a ‘prick test’ to identify what is causing their allergies) and so is this: genetics play a significant role determining who is allergic to what:
“One month I’ll see a whole bunch of pitbulls, and the next month I’ll see a whole lot of maltese,” Dr. White-Weithers says. “But on the whole, the terriers are more prone to allergies. Golden retrievers as well.”
But there’s also a significant environmental component. A recent study suggests climate change is exacerbating pollen season in North America. And, both people and pets living in sanitized environments, with less regular exposure to disease, are more prone to allergies.
That means that a pet poodle in Phoenix, Arizona, is probably more likely to have allergies than a wolf living in Yellowstone National Park. Same goes for the poodle’s owner when compared to a rural farmworker. Or a wild stallion, compared to one sequestered to the stable.
Now here’s the harder version of Krstin’s question: do ALL animals get allergies?
Elia Tait-Wojno says that all immune systems like ours can make mistakes but then again, not every living creature has an immune system that resembles ours.
“So is it possible that every animal can be allergic? Yes… but we just don’t know,” she explains.
One thing we can say for sure: environmental allergies are deeply connected to the way we - as humans - shape the world around us. And while we may not be able to know if Bluefin tuna are sneezing underwater every spring, there is evidence that captive dolphins, for example, have skin irritation consistent with environmental allergies.
This is why veterinarians tend to have what they call a “one-health perspective,” Tait-Wojno says. “The health of animals is tied to that of humans. Things like climate, public health initiatives, access to care — all of [these things] that affect humans also affect animals.”
So next time you’re coping with seasonal allergies, keep in mind: your pooch may be cursing the pollen count too.
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