While the term ‘food allergy’ is used widely by vets and pet owners, the incidence of this type of reaction to a food (like the reaction a person might have to eating a peanut, for example), is actually quite rare. Most pets who are described as having ‘food allergies’ only have a food sensitivity – a less severe, low-grade problem, but troublesome all the same.
A food sensitivity may present itself as generalized itchiness, hair loss, digestive upset or ear infections. Hot-spots (pyoderma) and chewing at the feet, are also classic responses to food intolerances. If hot spots and other skin irritation occur suddenly, it can be helpful to think back to whether there was a recent change to a new food.
Certain ingredients have a much higher incidence of causing allergic reactions than others but the key is to uncover what your own pet can and cannot tolerate. For many pets, the most common culprits are wheat, corn, soy, rice and sugar beet pulp – as well as various by-products, preservatives and cheap fillers that can deplete the immune system over time – but which are often used in low quality pet foods.
Many pets have problems with lamb, which is a ‘warming’ (yang) food in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which can cause a pet to feel hot, red and itchy and thus exacerbate hot spots and related skin and coat problems– especially when it’s consumed long-term. Better alternatives to lamb are ‘cooling’ or ‘neutral’ meats like duck, turkey or beef.
Pets are individuals!
Both food allergies and food sensitivities are entirely specific to the individual animal, and for this reason it’s very important to be aware of commercial pet foods labeled ‘allergen-free’, ‘hypoallergenic’ or ‘non-allergic’. There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ diet for dog in general and this is even more true when it comes to dogs with allergies. It’s essential to find what’s right for the individual animal. A food that’s ‘non allergenic’ for one pet may cause severe reactions for another. Just as a cake may be labeled ‘hypoallergenic’ for most human beings because it’s made without nuts, dairy and gluten, it could cause a severe and even fatal reaction for a person with a strawberry allergy, if it is made with strawberries. Similarly, a “hypoallergenic” pet food made with, say, lamb and rice or duck and potatoes, will not even come close to improving the situation for a dog who’s god a sensitivity to lamb, or potatoes.
There are lots of different theories about how and why pet food allergies and sensitivities occur. Most holistic practitioners agree that true allergic reactions are usually the result of an underlying health problem or system imbalance. All dogs and cats are exposed to a variety of allergens in daily life and the majority never have a reaction of any kind. Pets don’t actually develop allergies as a result of exposure to allergens, but because they have suddenly become susceptible or vulnerable in some way.
Bad quality food in itself may deplete the immune system over time, because it’s laden with toxins and other substances that place unnecessary burden on the body’s organs and immune system, or because it lacks vital phyto-nutrients, antioxidants or enzymes that are abundant in fresh and gently prepared foods but killed by high heat processing. Many such nutrients may not be included in AAFCO nutrient profiles but are still essential for long term optimal health and a robust immune system that can better resist the development of allergies over time. Vaccines, chemicals, medications like antibiotics or steroids, stress and genetics, can all predispose a pet to pet food allergies as well.
Steps to take for pets with pet food allergies or sensitivities. For many lucky pets, eliminating the high-risk ingredients of wheat, corn, soy, rice and beet pulp and usually identifying single proteins that they are able to tolerate, are the only steps needed to manage pet food allergies, and they go on to be free of problems for the rest of their lives. In other cases, cutting out all glutenous grains from the food and also treats, brings about a dramatic improvement. A “hypoallergenic pet food” per se, is never actually required.
In other cases, feeding a food that’s very minimally processed with a single protein source, can make a vast difference. Many pets seem sensitive to beef in the form of a beef flavored kibble but can actually tolerate lightly cooked hamburger, beef marrow bones, or a piece of raw steak very well. That’s because the high heat & high pressure processing used to make kibble, can alter the amino acid structure of proteins, making them unrecognizable to the body and triggering off a pet food allergy that vanishes when the human food (fresh raw or minimally processed) equivalent is fed.
The Role of the Elimination Diet
Sometimes, an elimination diet or ‘feeding trial’ is needed to uncover the cause of pet food sensitivities. This involves feeding an extremely simplified diet for about weeks – say, fish and sweet potatoes or bison and millet – until allergies subside – and then gradually adding in additional ingredients to observe for any sign of intolerance such as itching or diarrhea.
Here’s an example of a simple Elimination Diet protocol to follow. A note book should be used to document what you feed each week, and what reactions occur or subside so that you can start to identify patterns.
Feed a diet of 50% cooked ground turkey (hormone and antibiotic free, no nitrites) and 50% cooked mashed sweet potatoes. Some reduction in itching and or diarrhea should be observed in this time.
If itching and / or diarrhea persists, replace the cooked ground turkey with cooked ground beef or bison. If conditions are improving, replace some of the sweet potatoes with kale, parsley or other greens.
If itching and or diarrhea persists, replace the cooked ground beef with cooked white fish, for example cod or haddock, and replace the sweet potato with a green vegetable such as pulped celery, broccoli or kale.
If conditions are improving, replace some of the sweet potatoes and greens with a small amount of chopped banana, pureed melon or other soft fruit (not grapes), to a maximum of about 5% of the total diet.
Week Four & Beyond
If itching and / or diarrhea persists, consider laboratory based allergy testing to help accurately pinpoint what foods your dog can and cannot tolerate. If you wish to feed grain to your dog, a seed like quinoa, millet or another gluten-free grain like organic oats would be the best choice.
If conditions are improving, you may continue adding one or two new ingredients every couple of days, and continue observing for any reactions.
If a flare-up or recurrence of previously improved symptoms occurs at any point, this probably indicates that an ingredient has been introduced, which the dog can’t tolerate. Remove any new ingredients from that week and try something different. Some dogs are intolerant of ingredients like eggs, alfalfa and flaxseed so these may be best left until later in the Elimination Diet period.
Keep in mind that sometimes, itchy skin and other problems can be related to the environment and are not in fact directly related to diet at all. If an unexpected flare-up occurs or systematic changes in diet do not yield any improvement, think about what laundry detergent, household cleaners or yard products you may be using, just in case they are the culprit.
In many chronic cases, real commitment is necessary to uncover what is causing a pet food sensitivity. Scrutinizing the label of every food that passes your dog’s lips, (including snacks and treats), is essential. Patterns often emerge where, for example, diarrhea occurs every week after a dog returns from daycare and the cause is the cookies he receives there (or the adrenaline from all the excitement of seeing his friends).
Laboratory-based allergy testing is another option but it can be costly – and occasionally the results are inconclusive or inaccurate but many pet owners do eventually uncover the cause of their animal’s problem with this approach and it’s worth considering if the Elimination Diet doesn’t provide answers.
In addition to determining what foods the pet cannot tolerate – and committing to avoid them long-term, detoxification and support of the immune system with herbs as you go about your detective work, can be immensely helpful. Supplementation with digestive enzymes and probiotics can help get the body back on track and ensure proper absorption of the foods being fed.
Also see: "Could my pet be having a food allergy"?
NB: Thanks so much to Lucy for this wonderful article. She is the founder of The Honest Kitchen. Click here to learn more about her human grade dehydrated fresh food diet.
Homeopathic immune balancing (since food and other allergies are states of immune hypersensitivity) has proven to be very effective for treating food hypersensitivities in my practice.
Please note: The information provided here is intended to supplement the recommendations of your veterinarian. Do not disregard veterinary advice or delay treatment based on information on this site. Nothing can replace a complete history and physical examination performed by your veterinarian. -Dr. Jeff