Food allergies can be frustrating for you and your pet at first because the symptoms resemble so many other conditions. Once properly diagnosed, however, it's a very manageable condition. Food allergies affect dogs and cats across sex, age, and breed lines. Since diagnosis is the major obstacle to successful treatment, arming yourself with knowledge is the best way to reduce the potential impact of food allergies on your pet.
Causes of Food Allergies in Dogs and Cats
The most common food allergens for dogs are beef, dairy, chicken, wheat, eggs, corn, and soy; for cats the biggest culprits are fish, beef, and dairy. Food allergies in pets are caused almost exclusively by medium to large sized proteins. Normally, the stomach breaks down food, and enzymes then disassemble proteins for proper digestion. When your pet’s body can’t properly break down a protein, it sets an immune response against the protein. Still, it takes at least two years of exposure to the allergen before your pet will show any clinical symptoms because each time your pet’s body encounters the allergen, the reaction becomes stronger.
Symptoms of Food Allergies in Dogs and Cats
By the time your pet’s body has built up a strong response to the allergen, both you and your dog will start to notice the symptoms. Your pet will get excessively itchy, especially around the head, neck, ears, hindlegs, and anus. Because their skin feels itchy, your pet will start to lick and scratch, creating the awful cycle of pruritus, in which your dog’s skin deteriorates and becomes ever itchier simply because they’re scratching it. You may also notice hair loss, open sores, scabbing, and hot spots.
While skin problems are the most common reaction to food allergies, you might also see your pet develop ear problems. Dogs more so than cats will sometimes develop ear infections, have red, swollen ear canals. Gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and diarrhea are the least common symptoms, so you may or may not see this sign in your pet even if they do have food allergies.
Treatment for Food Allergies in Dogs and Cats
Because the symptoms of food allergies present exactly like the symptoms of inhalant allergies, flea allergies, skin allergies, or parasitic insect infestations, diagnosis can take a long time. Once diagnosed, you will have to find a food source that your pet has never eaten before. Because your pet needs 2 years to develop an allergy, eating entirely new ingredients will always be an effective treatment for food allergies. Some pet parents home cook meals during this trial period, but there are many commercially available products that use limited ingredients with food allergies in mind.
The trial diet should consist of an entirely new protein (often venison, rabbit, or fish) and an entirely new carbohydrate (peas or sweet potatoes, among others). If you’re home cooking, you should talk to your vet about a supplement to make sure your pet gets all of the necessary vitamins and minerals; a commercial pet food, however, will be complete with all the essentials. Your pet will need to stay on this limited diet for 6-8 weeks with no table scraps, no raw hide, no treats, no flavored toothpaste, no flavored medication, and no flavored plastic toys, so that symptoms are guaranteed to subside.
When the trial diet ends, you can slowly introduce one food at a time at 2 week intervals. If your pet shows no reactions, then the ingredient is safe. If your pet does show symptoms again, you’ll know what’s provoking their allergies. Simply avoid the allergens you identify in the future, and you and your best buddy can return to happy, healthy, allergen free lives.
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard or delay seeking professional advice due to what you may have read on our website.