As a doting pet parent, you go above and beyond to ensure your furry companion's health and well-being. From making sure they are on the best diet possible to providing them with plenty of mental and physical stimulation, you try your best to do it all. That's why it can be pretty upsetting when problems inevitably arise. Was there anything you could have done to prevent it? What should you do now? 

Here at Honest Paws, we believe an essential part of being a responsible pet owner is being able to recognize the early signs of ailments and acting efficiently to resolve it before the condition progresses. One common health issue that arises for many cats and dogs is dermatitis, a skin condition that results from allergen exposure. If your pet develops the condition, your veterinarian may prescribe a medication called Atopica for dogs and cats in order to alleviate their symptoms. 

However, there are a few incredibly important risks that you should be aware of before treating your pet with Atopica (or any conventional allergy medication). For many pet owners, the potential adverse reactions associated with the medication far outweigh the possible benefits. Let's get to it! 

What is Atopica | Cyclosporine

Atopica is a popular brand name for the drug cyclosporine. It is an oral medication that is typically prescribed to treat the symptoms of atopic dermatitis in dogs and cats. It can also be used for other immune system disorders in the body. Throughout the article, we will use the terms interchangeably in an effort to get our readers accustomed to both.

dog with dermatitis

What is Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats 

Now, before we cover everything that you should know about Atopica, it is important to understand exactly what it is used for: the treatment of atopic dermatitis. Dermatitis is defined as skin inflammation and typically presents as red, inflamed, swollen, and irritated patches of skin. The skin affected by dermatitis may blister, scab, ooze, or flake off. It can be incredibly itchy and painful for your furry companion and may cause them to excessively scratch and lick the area. The chronic inflammation is most commonly caused by environmental allergens that lead to an allergic reaction.

While dermatitis may not seem like a serious health issue, it can lead to the development of secondary problems. For instance, the constant scratching and itching can ultimately cause the skin to break, bacterial infections to develop, and even permanent scarring. Therefore, understanding the clinical signs of dermatitis and treating the condition appropriately is imperative. 

Dermatitis & Allergy Symptoms 

Just like people, cats and dogs can also suffer from allergies and trust us when we say, it's no fun for them. The constant itchiness and irritation are enough to drive them crazy. Therefore, pet owners must ensure they are doing all that they can to prevent and relieve their fur baby's discomfort. Of course, in some cases, dermatitis isn't entirely avoidable. However, by having a thorough understanding of the symptoms, pet owners can treat the skin condition before it worsens. 

Persistent Itching and Scratching 

The most common symptoms of dermatitis in dogs and cats are persistent itching and scratching. When dermatitis progresses, these symptoms will not go unnoticed. Owners may also find their pet rubbing against furniture or walls to help ease the itch if their skin irritation is in a hard to reach area. 

Now, you may be thinking to yourself that itching and scratching doesn't seem like that big of a deal. Unfortunately, they are. You see, the non-stop itching can quickly lead to abrasions and cuts. These open wounds are a breeding ground for the development of bacterial infections, particularly since the itching and licking will continue.

dog scratching itself


This brings us to the next symptom: licking. If you suspect your pet is suffering from dermatitis, be sure to check their fur for wet spots. Licking of the feet and in between the toe pads is a classic sign of atopic dermatitis. Again, while licking may not seem to be a troubling issue, persistent licking often leads to the development of hot spots and sores. Hot spots (pyotraumatic dermatitis) are no laughing matter. They can develop seemingly overnight and some can get quite large and be difficult to treat. 

Physical Symptoms 

Additionally, pet owners will likely find physical symptoms of skin irritations such as redness, bumps, rashes, and dry, flaky skin. These symptoms will typically be accompanied by the aforementioned clinical signs of dermatitis. 

Where to Look for Symptoms of Atopic Dermatitis

Dermatitis can develop anywhere on the body, but certain areas are more prone to the skin condition. Pet owners may first notice that their dog or cat is scratching their face or licking their paws more than usual. Additional areas to take note of include: 

  • Ears

  • Muzzle

  • Around their eyes

  • In between their toes

  • Underarms

  • Ventral chest and abdomen

  • Groin

  • Perianal region

  • Wrists

  • Ankles

Causes of Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats

There are many reasons for animals to itch including parasites, allergies, and infections. One of the most common causes of dermatitis in dogs and cats is exposure to environmental allergens. In order to prevent dermatitis, it is important for pet owners to have an understanding of what may be causing it, and then limit exposure to the initial cause. 

Environmental (Atopy)

As we previously mentioned, most cases of dermatitis are a result of environmental allergies. We likely don't have to tell you that cats and dogs are both highly sensitive and can be affected by allergies just like their owners. Most commonly, allergens like mold, pollen (grass, tree, weed, or flower pollen), and dust are the main culprits of environmental allergens. However, they are far from being the only elements that can lead to dermatitis. 

The skin condition can also develop from the following environmental causes: 

  • Smoke (from cigarettes, fires, etc.)

  • Cleaning products (including many household cleaning products... even the organic ones)

  • Plastic and rubber materials

  • Certain shampoos and soaps

  • Perfumes

cat sneezing

A good way to think of it is that if it's affecting you, it's likely affecting your pet. While not all environmental allergens can be avoided, pet owners can limit exposure, particularly if they pinpoint the exact cause of their pet's irritation. 

Environmental allergies are usually first noticed between the ages of 1 to 3 years old. They can be seen more during certain times of the year such as spring time when flowers and trees are in bloom. If you are finding yourself needing an allergy medication, be sure to keep a close eye on your pet's skin. 

Food Allergies 

Dermatitis can also develop due to food allergies. Food allergies can be one of the most itchy conditions in dogs in cats. The pet’s immune system may see the protein or other substance in the diet as foreign invaders. Food allergies develop over time, so your pet can be allergic to food that they have been on for years. It can be seen in young puppies or in dogs around 5 years of age or older. 

  Itching is usually seen around the face, feet and anal area. Recurrent ear infections may also be a sign of a food allergy. Itching is typically non-seasonal and does not respond to steroids or other medications. About 30% of dogs will also have gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting and diarrhea. 

Pinpointing your pet's food allergy can be a long, challenging process. With that said, we want to stress that it is entirely worth it. Continuing to feed your cat or dog food that they are allergic to can ultimately result in severe gastrointestinal inflammation and chronic stomach issues. Again, when any health condition can be avoided, it absolutely should be. 

Flea Allergies 

Additionally, dermatitis can result from flea allergies. A single flea bite can leave your dog or cat itching for weeks, and fleas rarely only bite once. This form of dermatitis typically causes irritation near the base of the animal's tail, but can develop anywhere. This is yet another cause that can be prevented with the appropriate lifestyle changes. We'll discuss more about prevention shortly. 

Contact Allergies

Another cause of dermatitis in dogs and cats is contact exposure to allergens. For instance, certain fabrics can cause an allergic reaction and the development of severe skin irritation. If you notice your cat or dog is itching more than usual, consider whether you have made any changes to the things they come in contact with on a regular basis. Did you change the laundry detergent you use to wash their bedding? Did you switch shampoos? Luckily, once the cause is pinpointed the substance can be avoided. 

How Does Atopica Work

Now that you have a solid understanding of what Atopica is formulated to treat, let's dive into how exactly it works. 

In many cases, allergic reactions are the result of a false alarm. The body is triggered by something it believes to be harmful and reacts accordingly. However, in terms of allergens like grass or blooming flowers, the body is reacting to something that isn't actually a threat. 

Atopica is an immunosuppressant. In other words, it suppresses the response to these foreign "threats" that aren't actually dangerous. Vets commonly prescribe the medication to relieve symptoms of canine and feline allergic dermatitis. 

Benefits of Atopica for Cats and Dogs

Before we cover the risks (and there are many) of Atopica, we want to state that for some pets, the medication certainly has its benefits. Some dogs and cats find significant relief with using Atopica. Additionally, unlike other allergy medications, Atopica is not a steroid and, therefore, doesn't have the associated side effects of steroidal drugs. 

Cyclosporine Side Effects

Without knowing the associated side effects of Atopica, it doesn't seem like such a bad choice. Providing relief for your pet's allergic reactions is something that most owners want to sign up for straight away. However, this is where the trouble starts. You see, Atopica comes with a laundry list of potential adverse reactions that many pet owners are unaware of. Once understanding the side effects, many pet owners may feel the potential harm outweighs the benefits. 

The most common side effect with Atopica is gastrointestinal upset, which may include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. As much as ⅓ of dogs may experience GI upset when beginning this medication. Atopica is meant to be given on an empty stomach for dogs, but it can be given with food initially to diminish these side effects. Other options such as starting at a lower initial dose or freezing the capsules have also been shown to help with nausea and vomiting. 

Other less common side effects include:

  • Kidney failure

  • Hypertension

  • Weight loss

  • Tremors

  • Headaches

  • Swollen bleeding gums

  • Gingival Hyperplasia (overgrowth of gums)

  • Development of cancer

  • Easy bruising

  • Hearing problems

  • Lethargy and muscle weakness 

  • Yellowing of skin and eyes (jaundice)

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Swollen glands

  • Immune suppression

  • Dizziness and lack of coordination

  • Changes in vision

Liver and kidney toxicity are generally seen at very high concentrations of cyclosporine in the blood. Long term use, especially when given with other immunosuppressants, may predispose the pet to develop cancer. It should not be used in patients with pre-existing liver or kidney disease and cancers. 

Atopica for Cats and Dogs: Dosage

Speaking of dosage, it is imperative that pet owners give the exact dose that their vet prescribes. NEVER increase the dosage without consulting with your veterinarian. If the aforementioned side effects can occur with the correct dose, just imagine what can happen if an overdose occurs. 

Additionally, it is important to not miss a dose. If you do accidentally miss a dosage, be sure to give the medication as soon as you can. However, never double up on a dose! Again, this can cause an immediate overdose. 

The appropriate Atopica dose will be determined by your veterinarian based on your pet's body weight. It is generally started at once daily for at least a month and then tapered to the lowest effective dose (typically twice a week). It is not for acute allergy flare-ups, but meant to be given long-term. 

Additional Precautions of Allergy Medicine for Dogs

First and foremost, every single conventional medication comes with potential adverse reactions. However, when it comes to allergy medications, there are even more precautions to be aware of. Most allergy medications are immune-suppressing. The immune-suppressing effects are how these drugs are able to prevent the body from reacting. However, they also cause the body to increase susceptibility to infection and diseases. Therefore, if you choose to use a conventional allergy medicine, it is imperative to closely monitor your dog's overall health in order to prevent the development of secondary illnesses. As with any long-term medication, monitoring your pet’s blood levels every 6 months is recommended in order to catch any changes in organ function early. 

Additionally, the following dogs should never be given allergy medications as they can cause irreversible damage: 

  • Breeding dogs

  • Pregnant dogs

  • Lactating dogs

dog lactating puppies

It's no surprise as to why so many dog owners are actively seeking an alternative to drugs like Atopica. The risks are not only scary, but many are irreversible. Sure, your dog may no longer suffer from itchy skin, but are you willing to jeopardize the health of their vital organs? It really makes you think twice. 

Additional Precautions of Atopica for Cats

The use of Atopica in cats comes with even more precautions to be aware of. First, Atopica should never be given to cats with a history of malignant disorders, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection, or feline leukemia virus (FeLV). Toxoplasma antibody titers are also recommended prior to starting Atopica, as this infectious organism can encyst subclinically in the muscle and may be reactivated with cyclosporine usage.  Like in dogs, the immune-suppressing effects of Atopica make felines more susceptible to infections and other diseases. The drug also makes cats less responsive to vaccinations and at a higher risk of developing neoplasia.

Additionally, using Atopica consistently can result in severe weight loss and the development of conditions like hepatic lipidosis. Therefore, regular weigh-ins are a necessary part of overall health monitoring. 

Furthermore, Atopica can cause even more troubles for cats with pre-existing kidney problems. Therefore, cats with diabetes mellitus or renal insufficiency should not take the drug. It is imperative that your veterinarian has a thorough understanding of your cat's medical history prior to prescribing any medication, but especially one that can have such harsh side effects. 

Dermatitis Prevention 

As we previously mentioned, not all dermatitis can be completely prevented, but some forms can be. Whenever possible, pet owners must ensure that they are doing all they can to prevent the skin condition and, therefore, prevent the need for a medication like Atopica. 

Limiting Exposure to Allergens

Perhaps the best way to prevent dermatitis is by limiting exposure to environmental allergens. This includes things like smoke, pollen, pesticides, herbicides, and household cleaners. We're not suggesting that you must completely eliminate these things, but even limiting your pet's exposure to them can make a huge difference. 

Weekly bathing removes allergens from the fur and may be helpful in reducing exposure. Also washing bedding regularly and avoiding stuffed toys can minimize exposure to dust mites. Remove the pet from the area when vacuuming or dusting or when the lawn is being mowed.

Additionally, it is imperative that pet owners determine whether a food allergy is to blame and make the appropriate dietary changes if so. As we discussed, continued exposure to a food they are allergic to will ultimately cause severe, chronic gastrointestinal inflammation and can lead to secondary health issues. 

Flea & Tick Preventative

Next, pet owners should be aware of whether their dog or cat is at risk of fleas and/or tick bites. Talk to your veterinarian regarding whether a flea and tick preventative medication is a necessary step to take to prevent the development of dermatitis. It is also important to not over-medicate and understand whether the medication is only necessary during certain months. 

Staying Alert 

Finally, by staying alert and understanding the symptoms of dermatitis, pet owners can prevent the condition from worsening to a stage where a conventional medication may be necessary. Look for signs such as itching, scratching, licking, damp fur, vomiting, and diarrhea. None of these should be considered "normal." It is imperative that the pet owner gets to the bottom of what is causing the symptoms to develop and work to effectively relieve it.

dog and cat laying down together

Atopica for Cats and Dogs: A Final Thought

When all is said and done, we can all agree that allergies and subsequent allergic reactions are no fun for anyone. Sadly, your fur babies aren't exactly able to tell you that they aren't feeling their best, but their skin can certainly show you. If you recognize that your cat or dog is experiencing chronic atopic dermatitis, try not to panic. There is relief in sight and are several newer forms of treatment (including Apoquel and Cytopoint for dogs) which prove to have positive, effective results. However, we urge our readers to think twice before administering a medication like Atopica. 

From all of us at Honest Paws, we hope that your fur baby feels better soon!