Is your dog constantly itching (licking, biting, scratching, chewing, rubbing, rolling) at the face, paws, limbs, armpits, abdomen or under the tail? Is your dog getting recurrent skin rashes or ear infections? Your dog may be having an adverse reaction to the food you are feeding. Cats may also have food allergies. They often itch like dogs, but may exhibit other cutaneous reaction patterns such as a crusty rash (military dermatitis) or red inflammatory plaques on the skin (eosinophilic plaques) or ulcers on the upper lip margin (indolent ulcers). In addition, cats and dogs with a food allergy occasionally show gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting.
In an effort to alleviate such symptoms, pet owners often change the food being fed. However, selecting the wrong food is a common error made by pet owners. Below are three important misconceptions and common mistakes that pet owners make about food allergies:
1. Purchasing pet food with “limited ingredients.” Buying an over-the-counter food labeled as "limited ingredient" for food sensitive pets may, in fact, NOT be limited to the ingredients on the label. A study evaluated several diets purchased at pet food stores and showed that there were proteins in the food that were not on the label. We speculate that these potentially allergenic proteins unintentionally work their way into the food during factory production. Alternatively, there may be trace amounts of offending proteins in the meat sources obtained from third party vendors by the pet food company. So, while one is aiming to feed a novel protein diet to diagnose or treat food allergy, the diet fed may not be serving that purpose at all.
2. Only pet food causes food allergies. Pet owners that are not strict about eliminating EVERYTHING their pet is fed, including flavored medications, treats, and toys are missing the opportunity to diagnose, treat and cure the cause of their pet’s allergy. For example, chewable heartworm medications and pet toothpastes may have beef or pork or other meat extracts. These can trigger food allergy symptoms. Likewise, giving treats (even one!) to your pet or using pill pockets or using peanut butter, cheese or other human foods to administer oral medications may elicit the signs of food allergy we are trying to eliminate with the change of food.
3. Relying on blood lab tests to determine food allergies. Blood tests cannot definitively diagnose food allergy in your pet. Food allergy tests are available from your veterinarian, but are not reliable in diagnosing food allergy, as they are fraught with false-positive reactions. A diagnostic food trial, often called elimination diet, is the only way to diagnose food allergy.
So, what should you do if you think your pet may have a food allergy? Consult your veterinarian and follow these tips during the diagnostic food trial:
1. Conduct a food elimination diet (with lots of patience). Successful diagnostic food trials using an appropriate food may take up to 12 weeks. Your pet may show improvement before that time, but most pets with food allergy do not show the maximum improvement until the 8-12 week mark. Be patient and compliant. We do not want to miss the opportunity to diagnose a treatable condition. Food allergy in pets is curable and manageable.
2. Get creative when giving pills. To give medications, also purchase the canned version of the diet your dog or cat is prescribed by your veterinarian for the trial. Use this wet food to form a meatball, insert the capsule or tablet into the middle, and feed the meatball to your pet. If the diet contains potato, you may bake plain potato mash it (no butter or milk added) and to do the same.
3. Know the facts about pet food labeling. There are several food manufacturers that are well-known within the veterinary community. They are proven to be a clean source of limited ingredients and utilize strict manufacturing practices in the formulation of prescription diets. They formulate these foods for diagnostic and treatment purposes. Consult your family veterinarian regarding what food to feed or ask for a referral to a veterinary dermatologist for further consultation about the right food for your pet with potential food allergy.
4. Flavored-medications. If your pet’s monthly heartworm prevention or flea control product is flavored, consult your veterinarian regarding a non-flavored option. Similarly, review all medications and supplements being administered for any purpose. They need to be withheld during a trial or changed to a non-flavored version.
5. Eliminate all treats and flavored toys. If treats are needed, use a teaspoon of the canned food as a reward, put the kibble into the cookie-jar and feed the kibble form of the food as a treat, or put the kibble into an un-flavored Kong ® toy and permit the pet to play. Ice cubes also make excellent treats for dogs during food trials and do not add calories. Occasionally, vegetables (carrot or green bean) are permitted during a food trial.
About Northeast Veterinary Dermatology Specialists
Based in Connecticut and New York, board-certified dermatology specialists Dr. Nina Shoulberg and Dr. Lauren Pinchbeck, along with a dedicated team of veterinary technicians, treat diseases involving the skin, hair, ears and nails with the most effective, safe, compassionate and state-of-the-art care possible. Services include intradermal and serum testing for airborne allergens, immunotherapy, the diagnosis and treatment of ear diseases using video otoscopy, and removal of skin tumors using a carbon dioxide laser. Diseases treated include allergies, bacterial infections, fungal infections, parasitic infestations, endocrine disorders and immune-mediated diseases. For more information, please visit www.nevetdermatology.com and/or www.facebook.com/nevetdermatology.