Just as people can develop allergies to certain foods, so can our pets. Awareness of this condition has increased significantly over the past decade, but it can still be a frustrating issue for pets and their owners to deal with. By learning the facts about food allergies you can take the first steps to providing your suffering pet with the relief you both desire.
In order to understand food allergies, we must first understand the basics of the immune system. The immune system works by identifying foreign proteins – usually bacteria and viruses – and then attacking those proteins. After meeting an invader for first time, the immune system is essentially able to remember this invader and keep special cells on call in case the enemy should return. If the offending protein reappears, the immune response will be much faster and more intense than the first time. Food allergies occur when a specific protein component in the food provokes an overly aggressive response from the pet’s immune system. Because of the immune memory response, repeated ingestion of the protein will yield increasingly severe reactions.
While the signs of food allergies are not hard to miss, they can all be attributed to other conditions as well, so it can be tricky to determine that a food allergy is to blame. Typically you will see signs of food allergies manifest in two ways: the first involves the skin and the second involves the digestive tract. Pets with food allergies often develop relentless itching on the face, feet, and body. They are also prone to ear and skin infections. Inflammation in the digestive tract can lead most commonly to soft, mucous stool.
There are two ways to determine if these signs are the result of a food allergy. The best and most common method is a food trial, which requires you to feed your pet a protein/carbohydrate combination that they have never eaten before for a minimum of 8 weeks. For dogs the most common food allergens are beef, chicken (including their eggs), dairy, wheat, corn, and soy. For cats the most common culprits are beef, dairy, and fish. Be sure to eliminate all of these in the food trial. Good protein alternatives include bison, rabbit, and venison. Carbohydrates can be replaced by rice, oatmeal, potato, or sweet potato. It is vitally important that not a single other piece of food enter your pet’s mouth during this trial. It is ideal if you can prepare this diet yourself with home cooked ingredients; this ensures that your pet is not exposed to other foods. If symptoms improve during this trial, then a food allergy is very likely the cause. Blood tests are also available to identify potential allergies, but the accuracy of these tests is uncertain at best.
Once you have determined that your pet is food allergic, you will need to manage their diet carefully in order to prevent symptoms from recurring. You can continue to feed a home cooked diet, but you must consult with your veterinarian to ensure that your pet is receiving all of the nutrients he requires. If you prefer a pre-made diet, there are many limited ingredient formulas available. You will need to read all labels carefully and be highly selective about which foods and treats you provide for your pet. Family compliance can also be difficult in some situations; impress upon other family members the importance of your pet’s strict diet and help them to understand the discomfort that straying from the diet can cause. It is possible for pets to develop new allergies to once inoffensive foods after they have been eating these foods regularly for an extended period of time. In this case, you will need to run another food trial with new food sources and start the process again.
Food allergies can cause a great deal of frustration and require patience to identify, but this effort will result in an enormous improvement in quality of life for your pet.