What are Food Allergies and How Do I Stop Them?
When our pets have food allergies, it can be very frustrating for pet parents and for our dogs and cats. We don't want our pets to lose hair, itch, and develop hot spots from excessive licking, and neither do they. But, where to start? There are so many foods on the market, so many ingredients to consider, and there are always conflicting opinions. There is also a lot of confusing information and marketing about what we should be feeding to our dogs and cats. I'm going to break down food allergies and solutions for you right here!
What is an Allergy?
An allergy is an inflammatory response to food, grass, dust, pollen, flea bites, etc. that causes an allergic reaction, or symptoms, that drive humans and pets crazy. Common allergic reactions are expressed through inflammation of the skin, which leads to itching, redness and hair loss.
An allergic threshold is the point at which we start to physically manifest symptoms. When allergens stay below that threshold, our body manages them well and symptoms are not expressed. Take a look at this chart:
The actual numbers on the chart are arbitrary and appear only to give scale. The yellow line would be the point at which these dogs begin to experience symptoms from the allergens listed in each column. As we can see, depending on how allergic our dogs are to each allergen, we can reduce the occurrences of allergic reactions by simply reducing the amount of contact our pets have with them. It is not necessary, or probable, to completely eliminate most allergens.
In addition, the more natural antihistamines, digestive enzymes and anti-inflammatories we introduce to our pets, the higher their allergic threshold will go and the less likely they'll be to have symptoms manifest.
It is also important to remember that hypo-allergenic does not mean non-allergenic. Instead, hypo-allergenic means less likely to cause an allergic reaction. Advertisers love this word, so we should make sure we know the definition!
Questions To Consider When I Think My Pet Has an Allergy:
Have I tried an elimination diet with my pet to determine potential allergens?
To what ingredients do I suspect my pet is allergic?
What are the symptoms my pet experiences?
What is an Elimination Diet and Why is it Necessary?
An elimination diet is used to determine food ingredients which our pets can tolerate and to isolate ingredients which we should avoid.
The most important thing to consider when feeding an elimination diet is that we must avoid ALL ingredients which are not part of that temporary diet. An elimination diet can take 12 weeks or even longer, but the results are very trustworthy and the cost is minimal compared to other less effective methods of determining allergens.
Before We Begin an Elimination Diet:
We need to isolate the primary ingredients in our pet's food down to 2: one meat and one carbohydrate.
The selected protein and carbohydrate sources should be something which we can be relatively certain is not causing the problem.
I prefer to select protein sources with which our pet has had minimal contact. Some options include: pork, bison, turkey, duck and kangaroo.
Some great carbohydrate source options include: sweet potatoes, lentils, tapioca and garbanzo beans.
Other ingredients in the food should either be a healthy fat source, such as: fish oil, coconut oil or olive oil; or a simple vitamin or mineral supplement which should contain little to no allergic potential
Now the diet we have carefully chosen should be fed as the sole diet for our pet. This includes any dog treats or table scraps we feed our dogs or cats. Absolutely nothing else!
We should observe our pets for an increase or decrease in symptoms. If symptoms begin to improve, then our pets should remain on that diet for up to 12 weeks or until the symptoms have completely subsided. If symptoms begin to worsen, it's time to abandon one of the two primary ingredients and replace it with a different novel source.
It's important that we only replace one ingredient at a time and then make note of the dates, ingredients, and any noticeable changes or benefits in our pet's response.
We should continue to rotate through ingredients until we find a combination that drastically decreases or completely eliminates any symptoms.
At this point, we can start adding one ingredient at a time to your pet's diet, in the form of treats or other similar pet food formulas, all the while taking note of your pet's responses to each ingredient.
This is how we figure out, one by one, which ingredients our pets can tolerate.
Tell Me More about Ingredients
A true food allergy is caused by a protein. Almost all food items contain some form of protein, but many food items have a much higher percentage of protein than other food items. For example, a dog can be allergic to carrots. This is because their body recognizes the proteins found in carrots as a threat and will try to eliminate it from the body. This is why blood and skin tests done at veterinary offices will often return positive allergic responses for foods such as carrots, flax, potatoes or other produce. The problem with this classification of allergic reactions is that they typically fall well below the allergic threshold we discussed earlier, and probably do not need to be eliminated from our pets' diets.When we are deciding on a food for our dog or cat who is displaying allergy symptoms, we should avoid all foods containing beef, wheat, chicken and soy. These are the most common food allergens. Wheat and soy, while being grains and not meat, still contain a high percentage of high allergen proteins.
To replace those very common pet food ingredients, we should instead look for the novel ingredients we spoke about earlier: rabbit, duck, pheasant, kangaroo and bison, all of which are commonly available in pet food. Again, good novel carbohydrate sources include sweet potato, tapioca, garbanzo beans and lentils.
*Remember that any consumed food items can potentially trigger a reaction, not just our pets' primary diet. We should be sure not to feed our allergic pets table scraps or treats which contain any of the most common allergens. Especially while we are doing an elimination diet to determine the source of our pets' allergy. Most of the treats sold in grocery stores contain wheat, soy, beef or all three. Additionally, something as simple as the crust from a slice of white bread can set off a dog with severe allergies.*
What Are Some Brands to Consider?
Hollywood Feed carries many diets great for pets with allergies and for trying an elimination diet in all of our stores. The brands below have novel ingredients as well as high levels of natural antihistamines and anti-inflammatories. A few of my favorites are: Answers Pet Food (In-Store Only), Orijen, Acana, Fromm, Holistic Select, and Natural Balance, which all have hypo-allergenic formulas. Also, the most common food allergens such as beef, wheat and soy are absent from the majority of the formulas and brands that we carry.
What Else Should I Know?
Finally, I should point out that food isn't the only thing that can cause an allergic reaction, it's simply the easiest to manage. Grass is another very common allergen, but because there's virtually no way to escape it we should minimize exposure, but be realistic about dogs being dogs. By eliminating as many other allergens from our pets' lives as possible, we can most likely bring them under the allergic threshold to a point of comfort.
For an outline on skin/allergy disorders as well as some of the best nutrition available, read: Cats, Dogs and Dermatology, I Have an Itch that Needs Scratching and Solve 90% of Pet Health Problems through Answers Raw Nutrition .
- John Sanders