For some people, a glass of milk is a glass of milk, but for others, it’s hours of agonizing pain and diarrhea. For some, eggs are eggs, wheat is wheat, and peanuts are peanuts, but for countless others, those products are something much more sinister. Every person reacts differently to foods, but those differences don’t just stop at us bipeds. Animals experience food allergies too, and just like a person who is allergic to peanuts can swell up when the nut is near, so can your pooch or your kitten or even your horse.
Just recently, The Messerli Research Institute released a paper that highlights the similarities in human and animal allergy symptoms and triggers of adverse food reactions. The paper condenses all the information ever recorded about animal allergies into one, easy(ier) to digest paper.
According to the study, animals that are allergic to milk may experience the same upset stomach that we humans do; pets that eat something that doesn’t agree with their system may suffer from an itchy palate, swelling of the face or even a severe asthma attack; and those with more severe intolerances, such as peanut allergies, may go into anaphylactic shock if they are even near the substance. For these reasons, it is so important that we as pet owners and caretakers understand how animals are affected by certain foods and what we can do to eliminate triggers from their diets entirely. That is what this article aims to do: educate you on pet food allergies, triggers, symptoms, treatment and prevention and prevention.
Does Your Pet Have an Allergy or an Intolerance?
First and foremost, it is important that you understand the differences between an allergy and intolerance. Let’s use lactose intolerance as an example… Most people who are lactose intolerant will exhibit signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, gas or painful bowels after drinking milk, eating cheese or consuming dairy of any kind. However, people who are allergic to dairy will suffer from a different type of reaction such as itching, skin problems or even difficulty breathing. Allergies can be life threatening, while intolerances are merely uncomfortable. That is why it is so important that you understand the differences between the two, as if your pet has an allergy, you need to know to what so that you can prevent their consumption of it and have the necessary tools on hand to help him if he does consume a trigger food.
Common Food Triggers
Just like there are known trigger foods in the human diet, there are known trigger foods in a pet’s diet too. Some of the more common products to cause allergies include dairy products, beef, chicken, lamb, fish, eggs, corn, soy and wheat. If this list sounds eerily similar to the ingredients in your dog’s food, that is because it is. Unfortunately, many reactions are triggered by the most basic of foods, which is what makes food allergies so scary and difficult to control. Additionally, while some proteins are slightly more antigenic than others, the prevalence in animal meals—and therefore, the rate of exposure—is likely linked to the rate of incidences.
Symptoms to Look Out For
Again, many of the symptoms that your pet will experience when they consume a snack they’re allergic to are similar to the symptoms that you may exhibit. The most common symptom of a food allergy is the less severe itching. Your dog or cat may paw intensely at their face or scratch at their feet, ears, forelegs, armpits and the area around their anus. In larger animals that cannot scratch themselves, or even in your cat or dog, look for chronic and recurrent symptoms such as hair loss, hot spots, skin infections and ear infections. Dairy allergies especially present themselves in recurrent ear infections.
There is some evidence that suggests that dogs with food allergies have particularly active bowels. Whereas it’s normal for a dog to relieve his bowels one to two times a day, dogs with food allergies average around three or more bowel movements a day.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to discern a food allergy from a topical allergies or atopy based on the aforementioned symptoms alone. This is why it is so important that if you do notice any of the above signs, you look for additional symptoms, such as wheezing, ear infections or yeast infections. Normally, an animal that is allergic to a particular meal will demonstrate more than one sign.
Diagnosing a Food Allergy in Pets
Diagnosing a food allergy in pets is fairly straightforward; however, because many other health issues present themselves in similar symptoms, it can be easy to confuse a food allergy with something else. For this reason, it is important to eliminate all other possibilities before giving an official diagnosis. For instance, if your pet has multiple fleabites, we would treat those before declaring he’s allergic to beef. If your cat has symptoms of an intestinal parasite, we would screen for that before determining that she is allergic to milk. The last thing we want to do is make a misdiagnosis, as that could lead to additional complications down the road. Only once all other probable causes have been ruled out will we begin to run allergy tests.
Food Trial Basics
A food trial consists of feeding your dog, cat or other pet a very restricted diet for 12 weeks and observing them carefully. Typically, a veterinarian would recommend a diet that consists of protein and carbohydrates that your pet has never eaten before, such as venison, potatoes, bison or rabbit. The proteins and carbs are broken down into such molecular sized pieces that even if your pet were allergic, he or she would not demonstrate an allergic reaction. These diets are often called “limited antigen” or “hydrolyzed protein” diets. If you want to ensure that your pet does not get anything beyond the novel proteins and carbs, you can always make their food at home. It’s important to keep in mind that while your pet is on this restricted diet, he or she does not consume anything else—no treats, no flavored medication, no bully sticks or chicken treats. They can only have the special meals and water and that is it. Studies suggest that your pet will respond to their new diet within 21 days at a minimum and 12 weeks on the very outside. If your pet shows a marked improvement on this new diet, your vet will recommend switching him back to his original diet. If his symptoms flare back up, a food allergy is confirmed. If your pet doesn’t show an improvement on the new diet after 12 weeks but a food allergy is still suspected, your vet will recommend a second trial using a new protein source.
What About Blood Tests?
While many people swear by blood tests, there is no evidence suggesting that they actually work for the diagnosis of food allergies. While skin testing and blood testing works for atopy, the only true way to diagnose a food allergy is via a food trial. For some pets, it could take several trials before the vet comes to an accurate diagnosis. While this can be frustrating for both you and your pet, it is necessary if you hope to eliminate the cause of your pet’s discomfort and put them on a diet to which they’ll respond positively.
Treating Pet Food Allergies
Like with human allergies, the only real way to treat a food allergy in animals is to help them avoid consuming the trigger food. While short-term relief may be gained through the use of antihistamines and steroids, relying on those as a long-term solution is unrealistic and ineffective. Not only is it unfair to your pet to have to consume medication in order to eat, relying on drugs long-term can reduce the effectiveness of those drugs as your pet’s system becomes used to, and therefore immune to, them. If your pet needed steroids for a more serious health condition later on down the road, the steroids would be unable to help them because of over and unnecessary use.
The best thing you can do for your pet is to make sure he or she does not consume the trigger food. This may mean making meals yourself, especially if the trigger food is found in nearly every cat/dog/horse snack on the market. However, if you do plan on making your pet’s meals, keep in mind that you still need to include an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals. The diet you do plan to feed your pet should be approved by a veterinary nutritionist.
Gene therapy can be another way for allergy treatment taken into consideration.
Consult the Caring Veterinary Team at the United Veterinary Center
If you suspect that you pet is allergic to a particular food, don’t wait until their reactions become severe and reach out to our trained veterinary team at the United Veterinary Center today for an official diagnosis. Though it may take time, patience and effort on yours and your pet’s parts to come to a final diagnosis, it will be well worth it when your pet is able to eat comfortably without suffering from any painful or dangerous side effects.