Pet Food Allergies: Symptoms, Diagnostics & Treatment Options

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General Information About Pet Food Allergies

Food allergies are a common health problem in both dogs and cats. Diagnosing food allergies in pets can be challenging, especially because many times food allergies manifest themselves in the same way as environmental allergies. Still, determining whether your pet has a food allergy is very important.

Common Causes of Food Allergies in Pets

There are a number of items that cause pet food allergies. Pets can be allergic to any food as well as any ingredient in a particular food, including things like dyes and preservatives.

The most common ingredients in dog food that cause pet food allergies are:Pet food allergy symptoms and treatment at Upstate Veterinary Specialties

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Egg
  • Rice

You may notice that this list of allergens contains some of the most common ingredients in dog foods. Foods are not inherently allergy-causing or ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Dogs develop an allergy to a particular food as a quirk of their own immune system.

To have an allergic response to a particular food (or anything else), your immune system must have seen it before. When the body sees new things, it must decide whether to have a neutral response or an inflammatory response and it will respond accordingly on repeat encounters.  However, there must be that initial ‘breaking in’ period. So while it may seem unusual that your pet seemingly all of a sudden has a problem with a food they have been eating their entire life, this is by far the most typical scenario. In fact, most pets who are diagnosed with a food allergy have been eating that food for two or more years.

Signs and Symptoms of Food Allergies in Pets

There are a variety of symptoms that can indicate your pet may have a food allergy. Some of the most common signs indicating at pet’s food allergy include:

  • Skin rash
  • Hives
  • Paw biting
  • Excessive licking
  • Itchy, runny eyes
  • Itchy, inflamed and infected ears
  • Sneezing
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

When attempting to identify the cause of an allergy in dogs, it is helpful to note that food allergies can occur in dogs of any age, but they are the most common type of allergy found in puppies under 12 months old.

Determining whether or not these symptoms may be a sign that your pet has a food allergy can be challenging, but examining your pet’s history is a good place to start. Your pet’s history can help you to distinguish what type of allergy your pet suffers from. When it comes to pinpointing your pet’s allergy, however, diagnostic testing the best way to determine which condition is affecting your pet.

Diagnosing Pet Food Allergies

While there are a number of tests available that are effective in diagnosing some types of allergies in pets, recent studies have indicated that these tests do not reliably identify the allergens in food that cause symptoms in an individual animal. The only reliable way to diagnose a food allergy in a dog or a cat is to do a special limited ingredient diet.

This special diet is a short-term diagnostic tool that helps us to understand how much of your pet’s condition is related to a food sensitivity. It involves feeding your pet a totally new type of food they have never eaten before. Since the immune system has not encountered the proteins in the food previously, it cannot be allergic to them. It also involves strictly limiting EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING that goes in your dog’s mouth for a 4-week period. This means no treats, no table scraps, no food off the floor, no foraging outside and may mean modifying flavored medications. Although this process can be difficult it is the only reliable way to make this diagnosis of a pet food allergy.

The good news is that the limited diet used to diagnose pet food allergies is temporary. Once we are able to make a conclusion whether or not your pet has a food allergy we can gradually add favorite foods back into the diet.

What to Expect During the Food Allergy Diagnosis Process

If a food allergy is suspected in your pet, we will begin the process of diagnosis by planning a special diet for your pet. The diet is custom chosen for your pet based on what he/she has eaten before. The diet can involve either home cooking, where you are your pet’s personal chef, or feeding your pet prescription dog or cat food that we will help you choose.

In many cases, preparing food for your pet yourself is the ideal option when attempting to diagnose a food allergy, as it gives you increased control over exactly what goes into your pets body. Prescription food specially made for pets with allergies is also a good option, though the ingredients in these foods are not as strictly limited as what you prepare in your own kitchen.

Studies suggest that there is a small number of dogs (approximately 20%) who do not improve when simply switched to a new food. Many owners feel frustrated because they feel they have tried an endless number of different diets with no results. Pet foods, in general, have many similar ingredients across brands because certain ingredients are more available and affordable. Just changing from one brand to another, even a premium holistic brand, may not be truly eliminating your pet’s exposure to their allergic trigger, which is the goal of a diet trial. While a smart change in your dog’s food is helpful in many cases, many times a home cooked diet is necessary to accurately diagnose a pet’s food allergy.

Treatment and Management of Pet Food Allergies

Because allergies are a chronic condition, there is no “cure.” The best treatment options include continued care and management. Treatment and management of your pet’s allergies will not mean that their symptoms will disappear entirely. Rather, the goal is to find the best way to control your pet’s symptoms so that they do not disrupt their daily activities and negatively impact their quality of life.

There is no one solution or one “perfect diet” for all dogs and cats who suffer from food allergies, as it is dependent on what ingredient(s) your pet is specifically allergic to. For example, diets which are chicken based are fine for pets who have an allergy to beef. Since dogs and cats can be allergic to things other than grains and dyes, a diet which is advertised as “grain free” or “dye free” does not mean it will be allergen free. This is because any one of the other ingredients in the food has the potential to be an allergen to your pet.

If your pet has food allergies that are causing dermatological issues, speak with your primary care veterinarian about a referral to Upstate Veterinary Specialties. Our dermatologist, Dr. Michelle Tranchina and the team at UVS can work with you and your primary care veterinarian to diagnose and manage your pet’s food allergies to improve their quality of life.

If you’re a referring veterinarian seeking more information about the food allergy and dermatological treatments available for your patients at UVS, contact us today at (518) 783-3198. You can also refer a patient quickly and easily using our online referral form.