ALLERGEN SPECIFIC IMMUNOTHERAPY
Allergen Specific Immunotherapy, commonly referred to as "allergy shots," have come to be the most effective way to address airborne allergies, sometimes even resulting in a permanent cure. This sounds wonderful but there is expense involved plus it commonly takes a year to realize results and will not help the pet (or person) who is experiencing symptoms right now. Allergen Specific Immunotherapy, or "ASIT" involves the use of a special individually-made serum, created using small amounts of allergens (proteins against which the person or pet reacts). The patient periodically receives injections of gradually increasing amounts of allergens until a maintenance level is reached. This method of allergy control uses the patient's own immune system rather than drugs to address the symptoms of allergy. It may seem odd that injecting someone with the very substances to which they are allergic would be helpful but it is. All other therapies for airborne allergies basically aim to suppress the symptoms; allergen-specific immunotherapy is the only therapy that actually works against the immunological disease. The earlier in the allergic patient's life ASIT is started, the better the results and regular rechecks are needed through the course of ASIT.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM IMMUNOTHERAPY
There are a few points to cover with regard to what to expect from allergy shots. First, it is important to realize that ASIT may only be a part of the therapy. Approximately half the dogs receiving immunotherapy will have an excellent response and will not require any additional therapy. About 25%, however, will have a partial response which means that they will improve but still require other forms of itch relief to control their symptoms. About 25% will not have any response at all and will be essentially "back to the drawing board" with regard to controlling symptoms. When immunotherapy is combined with other forms of itch relief, even better results are obtained.
It can easily take a year to determine if the pet is responding.
Many people go marching off to the veterinary dermatologist with their itchy pet with the idea that immunotherapy will have an immediate effect and nothing could be further from the truth. Immunotherapy takes weeks to months to work and is something one plans for “next season” rather than for problems going on this allergy season.
Immunotherapy is not going to help a patient with a food allergy.
Most likely you will need to give injections to your pet at least a couple of times a week. This is actually not difficult but you should be aware that needles are probably going to be involved.
Testing can be done by either "intradermal skin testing" or by “in vitro” (blood testing). For skin testing ("IDST"), the patient must be referred to a specialist or at least to someone who performs enough skin testing to maintain an appropriate collection of allergens for testing. The patient must be held off anti-itch medications for a period of time (how long will depend on what the medications are and what the particular dermatologist recommends), an area of skin is shaved, and a grid of dots drawn on the skin to mark where the allergens go. Sedation is generally not necessary but that depends on the patient, of course. Small amounts of allergens are injected into the skin (the selection of allergens varies by region and community depending on what pollens and plants are common) along with a saline control (which will define what no reaction looks like) and a pure histamine sample (which will define what a strong reaction looks like). After an incubation time of several minutes, the reactions in the skin are graded. The allergens creating the strongest reactions will be selected for the serum.
Allergen doses are reflected in units called PNU (protein nitrogen units). The initial vials of serum to be used will be the weakest (maybe 1,000-2,000 PNU per ml). The patient will receive an increasing amount of allergen over time and will finally end with a maintenance vial that might be as concentrated as 20,000 PNU per ml.) Typically, injections start twice a week and eventually can be given every two weeks.
There are many dosing protocols that may be selected. Ideally the owner will be giving the injections at home but if this is not possible, the pet can be brought to the hospital for allergy shots. The owner will receive a schedule showing when to give each injection and how much to give. The amounts will increase until it is time to move up to the next vial where the concentration of allergens in greater.
video showing how to give injections to a dog
Expect to be thoroughly educated in the art of giving injections at the time the serum is prescribed. It may seem daunting at first but is very simple. It is helpful if the pet receives a special reward after injections. Used needles can be disposed of in the regular trash but it is helpful if they are placed inside a plastic or metal container (like a liquid laundry detergent bottle or closed coffee can) so as not to cause an accidental puncture.
Injections should be timed in such a way that the pet can be observed for 30-60 minutes post injection so as to watch for reactions. Any reactions should be reported to the veterinarian before giving the next injection. Serious reactions are rare (less than 1% of patients have them) but you should still be able to recognize them.
Serious Reactions Requiring Immediate Intervention
Not So Serious Reactions Which Still Require Reporting
Reactions are likely to lead to some kind of adjustment of the protocol. Be sure you understand when you are supposed to return for any rechecks. ASIT is the preferred treatment of atopic dermatitis and has the greatest potential for long-lasting effectiveness with rare side effects.
OTHER VERSIONS OF ALLERGEN SPECIFIC IMMUNOTHERAPY:
RUSH THERAPY: Traditional allergen specific immunotherapy can take six months to a year before one can even tell if it is working. What if the patient simply can't wait that long? With Rush Therapy, the first 12 injections are given over six hours instead of over six weeks. The patient must be watched closely in the hospital for reactions during this time (hives, itching, swelling or even something as serious as anaphylactic shock is possible and the doctor must be there to promptly reverse any reactions with medication). After the "rush" period, the patient can jump into maintenance therapy in a week or two. While the risk of reaction is increased giving allergens to intensively to a sensitive patient, the procedure appears to be safe and is actually the method of choice in some dermatology specialty practices. If you are interested in this version of allergen specific immunotherapy, check with the doctor overseeing your pet's serum preparation.
SUBLINGUAL IMMUNOTHERAPY ("SLIT"): While this version of immunotherapy has been available to human allergists for some time, it is new to veterinary practice. In this situation an oral product is applied daily, sometimes several times daily, and there is no tapering schedule as there is with injections. This method has been shown to be helpful to dogs who did not respond to injectable immunotherapy (50% of dogs who failed traditional injectable therapy were able to respond well to sublingual therapy). The sublingual technique might also be preferable to owners who are not comfortable using needles. The risk of anaphylactic shock appears reduces with the sublingual technique compared to traditional injections. SLIT vials do not require refrigeration, unlike vials for injection. It is important that the patient not swallow the SLIT allergens so the product cannot be given in food and the pet cannot be fed for a time after the product is given. SLIT treatments are given once or twice daily whereas the injections are given far less frequently (every 2 weeks in the maintenance phase).
In conclusion, allergen specific immunotherapy has changed the lives of allergic patients, both human and non-human. Pets with airborne allergies generally have an itchy season which can be expected to recur annually and frequently gets worse every year. While ASIT does not generally provide rapid results, it is usually very effective in the longer term or "bigger picture." If this is a form of treatment you would like to consider for your pet, ask your veterinarian for more details.
FIND A VETERINARY DERMATOLOGIST
The American College of Veterinary Dermatologists has provided this link to assist in finding a local veterinarian who specializes in skin.
Page last updated: 7/5/2017