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3:45 PM   April 25, 2015
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Easing Allergies

A wide array of products is available to soothe itchy canine customers.
By Lori Luechtefeld

Effective flea control may require treating the yard as well as the dog and home.
Few conditions are as irritating to dogs and their owners as allergies. While many rightly turn to their veterinarians for help in diagnosing the source of their pets’ itches, it’s not surprising that they also often turn up at their local pet stores to seek a variety of products that can provide relief.

Katharine Hillestad, D.V.M., a veterinary services representative at Doctors Foster and Smith Inc. in Rhinelander, Wis., says that allergies are extremely common in dogs. “Dogs can be allergic to substances they inhale or to external parasites, such as fleas and mites,” she says. “They can also have food allergies.”

Dr. Hillestad notes that, depending on a dog’s particular allergy, symptoms can be either seasonal or year-round.

“In general, food allergies tend to be year-round while inhalant allergies tend to be seasonal,” she says. “However, as time goes on, dogs with seasonal allergies often become more sensitive to the substances they’re allergic to, and their itchiness can last for longer periods of time, until it’s almost year round.”

Hillestad says that dogs with inhalant allergy are often allergic to dust mites, pollens, dander, grasses and trees. Meanwhile, food allergies are usually a hypersensitivity response to a specific protein or carbohydrate in the diet.

“Different dogs react to different ingredients,” she says. “Many dogs are allergic to a combination of things, and some dogs have both inhalant and food allergies.” 

Kathleen George, senior brand manager for health solutions at Central Life Sciences in Phoenix, notes that dogs’ allergies manifest themselves in vastly different ways than allergies in humans.

A Holistic Approach

Canine allergies represent a complex condition that often requires a multi-pronged approach. Consider stocking products in all of the following categories:

Hypoallergenic foods

“The reaction to allergies in dogs is itchy skin and hair loss, unlike allergic symptoms found in humans, such as sore throat and sinus congestion,” she says. “Contact with the skin rather than inhalation is how most allergic reactions occur in dogs.”   

Phil Brown, D.V.M., senior vice president of research and development at Nutri-Vet in Boise, Idaho, says that most dog owners fail to look at their allergic pet from a holistic standpoint. But treating allergies is often a multi-step—and thus multi-product—process.

Retailers need to educate customers on the wide range of products that can play a role in maintaining their pet’s health, including food, supplements and shampoos.

“Controlling allergies requires an integrated approach,” Dr. Brown says. “Across all categories, natural and organic products minimize allergic reactions.

“Retailers are in a position to recommend a full range of skin-care products,” he adds. “Not just shampoos, but also high-quality supplements that contain antioxidants to boost the immune system. If a dog’s overall health is good, it’s less likely to have skin and respiratory allergies.”

From the Inside Out
When it comes to complaints of allergic pets, Robert Burks, owner of Tails by the Lake near Lake Tahoe, says he is most commonly approached by owners whose dogs have food allergies.

“Most of them have already taken the pet to a veterinarian to have them tested,” he says. “Since they know what their dog is allergic to, they’re looking for very specific foods and treats. Usually they’ll ask me about products rather than reading 1,000 labels.”

Burks says the most common food allergies he sees are to wheat and corn, so he tries to keep a handful of wheat- and corn-free treats on hand.

Retailers need to educate customers on the wide range of products that can play a role in maintaining their pet’s health, including food, supplements and shampoos.

“A lot of pets with these allergies do well with a rye flour or pumpkin treat,” he says.

Sandie Wheeler, owner of Pets Gone Healthy in Marlborough, Mass., says she also sees her share of grain allergies, as well as the occasional allergy to chicken and other meats commonly included in dog foods.

“At our store, we recommend feeding novel meats and grain-free diets to these pets,” she says. Popular examples include duck and sweet potato and a variety of fish blends, she says.

In addition, Wheeler says she recommends a variety of all-natural supplements for allergic animals. For example, she recommends pet owners supplement their dogs’ diets with essential fatty acids, and she also promotes kelp powder for its ability to boost the immune system. In addition, she recommends a Pet Essences flower essence formula designed specifically for allergies, as well as an Earth Animal herbal drop for itchy skin.

Inhalant allergies tend to be seasonal, worsening in spring when plants bloom.

In addition to having an arsenal of foods and supplements available to help owners of allergic dogs meet their pets’ unique needs, it’s important to assess product recommendations in the context of the animal’s veterinary care.

“Animals with allergies are often so uncomfortable when they are first seen by their veterinarian that prescription medications are needed, at least temporarily, to get itching, inflammation and skin infections under control,” Hillestad says. “Other products may be useful in addition. Fatty-acid supplements, especially those containing the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils, may help to decrease itching and also may act synergistically with antihistamines or steroids, so that lower doses of these medications can be used.”

In addition to knowing what to feed an allergic dog, it’s equally important to know what not to feed them. And sometimes it’s not as simple as it seems. For example, Brown says that glucosamine, which is added to a variety of dog foods and treats, can trigger allergic reactions in dogs that are sensitive to shellfish.

Topical Solutions
Beyond foods, treats and supplements, retailers can offer a variety of shampoos and topical aids to both prevent and ease the itching and inflammation associated with allergic reactions in dogs.

“Medicated shampoo is perfect for year-round use and overall treatment of allergy symptoms, while the anti-itch lotion and skin medication are perfect for flare-ups,” George says. “Of course, the first line of defense is treating for fleas in the form of topical treatments.”

Hillestad agrees.

“Because flea allergy is so common in dogs, flea preventives are essential,” she says. “It’s important that owners realize that for effective flea control, it’s not enough to just kill the adult fleas. The goal is to break the flea life cycle by using products that contain insect growth regulators, which prevent the eggs and larvae from developing. In many cases, the house and yard must be treated also.”

Hillestad also notes that shampoos and conditioners containing oatmeal can be temporarily soothing to the skin.

“Following up with a humectant spray can help to retain moisture in the skin,” she says. “And topical over-the-counter products containing hydrocortisone can be good for occasional use in small areas.”

Sales Strategies
Although allergies—especially food allergies—are a year-round concern, they are particularly problematic during the summer when more dogs are outdoors and fleas are in full force, George says. Thus, paying special attention to these products in terms of display and customer communication can pay off in warmer months.

“Retailers should merchandise like products together and provide as much educational material on the subject as possible,” she says. “In addition, monthly e-mails to consumers about general dog health issues provide interest in new products or introduce customers to an existing old favorite.”

Indeed, when it comes to promoting allergy products for dogs, education is the best sales tool. And such education needs to include conversations related to a pet’s veterinary care.

Hillestad emphasizes that owners should always begin allergy treatment with a visit to their veterinarian, who can examine their dog and make sure the itchiness isn’t caused by fleas, mites or some other more easily treatable problem.

“A veterinarian can also help determine what kind of allergy the pet has and recommend the best therapy, including treatment for any secondary skin infections,” she says. “For most dogs with allergies, a combination therapy is the most helpful.” <HOME> 

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