In last week’s post we talked about seasonal allergies in pets, how they manifest and what you can do to relieve them. So this week it seems to make sense to us to talk about another moderately common allergic reaction in cats and dogs: food intolerance and allergies. Turns out, 10-15% of domesticated cats and dogs have a food allergy and many more have an intolerance. Food allergies and intolerances can make animals just as miserable as seasonal allergies can, and we’re happy to say that pet parents have options for giving their furry friend some relief. Read on to learn more.
Food Allergy or Intolerance?
Before we dive into the details about how to spot a food allergy and what you an do to relieve your pet’s symptoms, we think it’s important to talk about true food allergies, food intolerance, and the difference between the two conditions. A food allergy occurs when a pet’s immune system overreacts to a compound that she has digested. Thus, the resulting symptoms are caused by the body mounting an attack on itself. A food intolerance is caused by a pet’s inability to adequately digest a food that she’s eaten. Food allergies and intolerances may share the same symptoms in some cases and may even be treated through similar methods, but allergies and intolerance often manifest themselves in different ways.
What Could my Pet be Allergic to?
While your pet can develop an allergy to almost any food, proteins and carbohydrates are the most common. For instance, your pet might develop an allergy to chicken, beef or corn. The bad news is that the kinds of compounds that cause the most frequent allergies in pets are also widely used in pet foods. Many lower-quality pet foods may contain a mixture of several different meats or grains, making it hard to distinguish what is specifically causing your pet’s discomfort. However, the good news is that higher quality foods come with fewer ingredients and additives, so it can be easier to determine what food is the culprit and then purchase other food options to avoid it in the future.
Diagnosing a Food Allergy or Intolerance
A food allergy in a dog or cat can develop at any age and for any ingredient in their diet. In order for the allergy to begin manifesting itself, your pet must have had prior exposure to the allergen. Through repeated exposure, your pet’s immune system creates a stronger and stronger reaction to the compound, eventually leading to symptoms that you can see.
Diagnosing a food allergy on your own is very tricky because allergic reactions to environmental compounds – such as pollen that causes seasonal allergies – cause quite similar symptoms to allergic reactions from foods. The allergic response typically manifests itself in your pet’s head first, causing the ears to begin having a buildup of wax and different parts of the head to itch. Other parts of the body will also eventually start to itch, particularly the neck, paws, trunk, and anal area. As the reaction increases in severity, a rash can occur on the itchy parts of the skin. The rash may become infected if it isn’t treated with antibiotics.
If the itching becomes overwhelming to your pet, she will start scratching or chewing the affected area. Pets can scratch or chew with such intensity that they cause the irritated patches to turn into sores that might bleed and perpetuate infection. Sadly, this allergic cycle and the accompanying itching and sores can lead to a fairly miserable existence for an untreated pet.
As we discussed a minute ago, food allergies and intolerance often manifest in different ways. An intolerance occurs when your pet lacks the enzymes in her digestive tract to properly digest what she has eaten. Food intolerance will often result in digestive complications such as vomiting or diarrhea. If your pet’s exposure to the offending food item is a one-time incident, the vomiting and/or diarrhea might be very short lived and clear up quickly on it’s own. But prolonged exposure will cause prolonged illness in your furry friend that could lead to dehydration, malnutrition, and a variety of other issues.
If you think your pet might have a food allergy – or any other kind of allergy or intolerance – it is important that you meet with her veterinarian to get a professional opinion and discuss treatment options. Vets can also prescribe medications to clear up the itchy patches – or hot spots- that occur on the skin as well as infections of the skin and ears. This professional oversight is necessary both to prescribe medications that can give your pet some relief, but also to insure that your pet isn’t dealing with some other health complication that just looks like it could be allergies.
What you can do to Help Fido and Fluffy
Aside from medications that can be used to clear acute infections of the skin, there are no medicines that relieve allergies in your dog or cat. The answer is in determining what the offending substance is and never feeding it to Fido or Fluffy again. So if a food allergy is suspected, your vet will recommend an isolation diet. Isolation diets are about as straightforward as they sound. They begin by you severely limiting your pet’s exposure to as many foods as possible. Diets such as lamb and rice or chicken and potato are prescribed and can be cooked by you as you would normally prepare them for yourself… but without any seasonings. There are also several hypoallergenic prescription diets available that your vet may recommend. If your pet’s allergic reaction clears up on this simple diet, that means she’s not allergic to what you’re feeding her. You can then start adding back foods to increase the nutritional diversity of her diet. The key, however, is to introduce only one food item at a time and wait a sufficient period after each reintroduction to make sure that the allergies don’t return. If a reaction occurs when you try adding back a specific food, you’ll know that’s the one you need to avoid going forward. While you’re feeding the isolation diet, be very careful not to give your pet any treats or chews that contain ingredients other than what you’re giving for her primary meals. The foods in these items could contain the allergen and thus confuse and prolong the process of discovering the items responsible for the allergy.