I hear a lot of claims from clients about the cause and treatment of their pets’ allergies that sound like myths or misunderstandings to me, and I expect that. Obviously, a huge part of my job is educating my clients. But it especially bothers me when clients with such claims bring “proof” for them in the form of recommendations or opinions from other veterinarians.
The Academy of Veterinary Dermatology does a pretty good job regularly reviewing the evidence for various allergy treatments, and this is helpful is advising clients on what is likely to be helpful for their pets. There is, of course, always some uncertainty and room for differences of opinion, but the principles of how allergies work and the information concerning the pros and cons of common treatments is pretty solid. The problem is that there are few cases in which allergies can be cured, and there are risks as well as benefits to most effective treatments. This reality creates an opportunity for those who wish to market supposedly risk-free therapies or purported cures without real supporting evidence.
I recently ran across an example of an “integrative” approach to allergy treatment, which essentially means that standard recommendations and a certain amount of truthful information about the causes and treatment of allergies is integrated with unfounded accusations about how conventional medicine causes or fails to help allergies and a skewed perspective of the balance between risks and benefits, combined with promotion of unproven and implausible alternative treatments. These are opinions presented as facts, without good quality evidence to support them.
For Treatment of Flea Allergy Dermatitis-
I avoid recommending any…chemically-laden spot-on pesticides for your pets.
I realize many people like to use spot-ons because they are convenient and effective. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s just too much evidence of potential unhealthy consequences for your pets…In my opinion, the risks of these products are simply too great to warrant their routine (monthly) use.
And what “evidence” is there for the health dangers of these products? The usual source cited is a document from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which references reported adverse reactions associated with topical flea and tick products and announces some changes in labeling and reporting rules. The problem is that the adverse reactions studied are simply reports made to the manufacturers by pet owners and veterinarians, and as the report states, “The incidents have not been verified and may have causes other than exposure to the pesticide.” While the precautionary response of the EPA is entirely appropriate, the bottom line is that when a pet becomes ill about the time a topical flea or tick product has been used, the conclusion that the product is to blame is natural but not reliable. People, particularly those with exaggerated fears of “toxins” and “chemicals,” are likely to look for such things to blame for anything bad that happens. It requires controlled study to identify whether these products truly cause any of the problems blamed on them.
Instead of topical flea control, this “holistic” practitioner recommends “natural” alternatives:
A soothing bath will kill any fleas on your dog, help heal skin irritation, and make her feel more comfortable and less itchy. Also, clean animals aren’t as attractive to fleas. Pick a non-grain (no oatmeal) herbal shampoo.
Make liberal use of an all-natural pest repellent like Natural Flea and Tick Defense…
Here are the natural Brazilian oils and ingredients found in Natural Flea & Tick Defense spray …
Bathing may reduce the numbers of fleas temporarily, but it provides no lasting protection, and dogs with flea allergies will continue to suffer if they are not protected from flea exposure. There is, not surprisingly, no scientific evidence to show that the alternative product recommended is effective or safe.
For Treatment of Food Allergies-
If your dog is over a year old, consider using Dr. Jean Dodds’ Nutriscan saliva test to determine if your pet is allergic to beef, corn, wheat, soy, eggs and/or milk (the most common antigens for dogs).
If your pet has been eating the same food every day for months or years, there’s a good chance she’s developed an allergy to it…She might be sensitive to the single source of chemically-laced protein she’s been getting (chances are the meat is loaded with antibiotics and hormones causing immune system over-reaction). She’s also probably grown sensitive to certain allergenic ingredients in the food, typically grains and other carbohydrates.
Work with your holistic vet to develop an allergy elimination diet to help pinpoint the source of the problem. I recommend a three-month diet, which is longer than what many vets suggest. I like to give adequate time for an animal’s body to clear the allergenic substances, detoxify, and clean out cellular debris…
The diet I recommend is preferably raw, either homemade (again, as long as it’s balanced) or commercial. Rotating the protein sources your dog eats is extremely important, as is strictly limiting or eliminating grains…
Your holistic vet should also suggest natural supplements to help with detoxification, allergy relief and immune system support during and after the elimination diet.
There is no research to suggest that the saliva testing is useful for identifying food allergies. It is sold based on questionable theory and anecdotes, which have little evidentiary value. And as far as uncontrolled testing, at least one dermatologist has run the test in dogs with confirmed food allergies responsive to diet change, and the test results were highly inaccurate.
There is absolutely no evidence for the implication that allergies to meat proteins is associated with mysterious chemicals or hormones in the meat. These notions, the references to “detoxification: and “cellular debris,” and the faddish obsession with grains are all part of an ideology which respects belief more than facts. If something sounds “natural” it must be safe and effective, and if it sounds “unnatural” then it must be harmful.
Of course, I’ve written about the raw diet nonsense before, and there is, once again, no evidence that raw diets have any benefit in terms of preventing or treating allergies. As for supplements, apart from limited evidence that fish oils can reduce the dosage of other drugs needed to control allergy symptoms, there is no solid data to support supplement recommendations. Overall, this section makes erroneous and misleading implications about the causes of food allergies, recommends a dubious diagnostic test, and then suggests treatments that have not been demonstrated to help.
Treatment of Environmental Allergies-
Make sure your dog’s drinking water is high quality and doesn’t contain fluoride, heavy metals or other contaminants.
Don’t allow your dog to be over-vaccinated or over medicated. Vaccines rev up your pet’s immune system – too many vaccinations can send it into overdrive. An over-reactive immune system sets the stage for allergic conditions.
Honestly, are we still on about fluoride in the water?! This issue has been studied intensively for 60 years, and there is no reliable evidence to support significant health risks. Heavy metals are certainly potential toxins and should be avoided, but they are not a cause for atopy in dogs. Again, we see the vague and irrational fear of supposed contaminants, which bears a superficial resemblance to reasonable concern about known toxins at levels shown to be harmful, but which underneath is really more of an irrational extension of the emotion of disgust and the fear of contagion.
As for vaccines, while it is true that both allergies and vaccines have something to do with the immunes system, the notion of “over-vaccination” is a fuzzy ideological one with no clear meaning, and there is no consistent evidence that excessive vaccination, however that might be defined, has any causal role in pet allergies.
Allergies are a serious medical problem that causes a great deal of suffering for pets and their owners. Causes are complex and involve both genetic, developmental, and environmental factors, and symptoms tend to come and go unpredictably, which makes evaluating the effects of any particular intervention challenging. While there are many safe and effective therapies that can help manage allergy symptoms, there is no cure. Only complete avoidance of the antigens the individual is allergic to can eliminate symptoms entirely, and this is often not possible. No treatment that has any benefit is completely without risks, and the risks and benefits must always be carefully and rationally weighed.
The variability and chronicity of the symptoms and the complexity of the causation create fertile ground in which to sow myths and misconceptions about causes and treatments, as this article does vigorously. Providing treatments based on sound scientific understanding of the physiology of allergies and supported by reliable scientific evidence of safety and efficacy is the best way to help patients with this serious condition. Myths about allergy causes and treatments that are without a rational, scientific foundation or any real evidence of safety and efficacy are not legitimate “choices” or “options” to offer pet owners looking for real help. Integrating unproven methods and outright nonsense with established allergy therapies doesn’t add value or reduce risks, it diminishes our ability to help these patients and their human families.