Is your dog or cat’s skin itchy and irritated and you don’t know the cause? It could be that food allergies are the cause of these changes.
For cats and dogs, diet and nutrition can play a role in the cause andthe treatment of food-allergy-related dermatitis--a chronic disease, also known as cutaneous adverse food reaction, that results in skin inflammation. Additionally, if your pet has not yet developed dermatitis, serving your loved one a nutritious, balanced diet can be an important part of prevention.
Signs of Food Allergy Dermatitis in Dogs and Cats
Dermatitis may affect dogs anywhere on their bodies, particularly on their faces, ears, and feet. Cats typically scratch their heads and necks. In addition to dermatitis, cats and dogs may experience diarrhea and vomiting as a result of their food allergies; dogs may also experience difficulty breathing in rare cases. If you spot any of these issues, set up a veterinarian appointment right away.
Causes of Food Allergy Dermatitis
Food allergy dermatitis is often caused by a protein source--more commonly chicken and other poultry, beef, soy, dairy, or eggs, but also lamb and fish. Other culprits may include preservatives, fillers, colorings, and carbs, such as potato, wheat, corn, and rice. The exposure to the food substance is typically through consumption, but may also be indirectly, via inhalation or skin contact. Malnutrition can also be a cause of dermatitis in pets.
The disease may strike at any age, though typically symptoms are not found in pets under one year old, and symptoms will persist until the cause of the allergy is eliminated from the pet’s diet.
Note that because it can take a very long time, sometimes over a year or more, for a food item to cause problems, the issues your pet is experiencing may not be the result of a recent dietary change.
Steps to Treatment
Step 1: Elimination Diet
Because the symptoms of each type of dermatitis are similar, it can be difficult to identify and treat the underlying cause. To diagnose food allergy dermatitis, your vet will help you implement an 8- to 12-week elimination diet: substituting what your pet has been eating with a homemade or commercial diet that consists of one source of protein and one source of carbs--both of which your pet should not have ever consumed. You will also need to cut out treats.
Step 2: Choosing Uncommon Food Sources
Finding a food your pet has never tried is a good way to halt symptoms. Some less-frequently used protein sources, like bison or deer, may be recommended by your veterinarian. If your feline forages and hunts (i.e., rabbits or rodents), finding food sources that your cat has never been exposed to may pose a bit more of a challenge as your pet’s previous food encounters will have been more varied.
Step 3: Finding the Cause and Moving Forward
If your pet’s symptoms improve, then your veterinarian may recommend that the old diet be reinstated. This is so you can definitively diagnose the cause of the dermatitis. For example, if your pet’s food was changed in May and your dog improved by July, it may be hard to tell if it was food or blooming apple blossoms that led to the problem. For this reason, reinstating the old food will let you pinpoint the cause of the dermatitis.
On the other hand, if things are going well on the new diet, many pet parents decide not to try this. They would rather simply find out next spring whether it was the apple blossoms or the food that causes the allergies, and continue to use the food that’s working in the meantime. If the allergies don’t return, your pet will be on a usable diet, and you won’t have had to switch diets again.
If you opt to reinstate the old food, and your pet does have food allergy dermatitis, signs of irritation will likely return within hours or days. From there, your vet will help you determine what to feed your cat or dog to avoid further skin issues.
Other Treatments for Dermatitis
Weekly baths, allergy medications, or a prescription or hypoallergenic diet may also be recommended as a part of your pet’s treatment plan.
Other Causes of Dermatitis
Be aware that dermatitis can also be the result of non-food-related allergens, including:
- Fleas, flies, ticks, mites, lice, maggots
- Puppy acne
- Tumors or masses
- Exposure to extreme weather conditions
- Other diseases
- Hypersensitivity to environmental irritants
Talk to your vet to be sure you both understand what’s causing the dermatitis, so you can move forward with the best treatment plan.
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. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.
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