Healthy PetApr/May 2009 Issue

Sick as a Dog - Pet Food Allergy

Sniffing out your pet’s food allergy

Two-year-old Parish has had a dog’s life. Abandoned as a puppy, the chocolate Labrador retriever roamed homeless and hungry for many months before she was picked up and left at an animal shelter. She was about to be euthanized when a volunteer from American Lab Rescue saved her. Parish failed two adoption attempts before finding a permanent home.

“Apparently within the first few days of both placements, she got into fights with other dogs and was returned,” explains Parish’s owner, Mary Gentile of Arlington, Massachusetts.

Soon after Gentile brought Parish home, she signed the dog up with an expert trainer to improve sociability. Things were getting better in that area when Gentile noticed trouble of a different kind.

“She was having horrible liquid stools and lots of flatulence,” Gentile says. “And she had really itchy skin. She was losing her fur, chewing on her feet.” Gentile took Parish to the veterinarian, who suspected Parish had a food allergy.

Something She Ate
About 20 percent of dogs have some type of allergy and of those, approximately 10 percent are food allergic. After inhalant allergy (atopy, a reaction to airborne irritants like pollens, molds, mildew and dust) and allergy to fleas, food allergy is the third most common allergic condition in dogs.  

Allergic symptoms, which can start at any age, range from excessive scratching, leading to hair loss, hot spots and skin infections, to recurrent ear infections, vomiting and diarrhea. Itchy skin is usually the vet’s first clue.
“I see lots of itchy dogs. Skin problems are probably the main reason why pets are brought to the vet,” says Marge McMillan, DVM, owner of Windhover Veterinary Center in Walpole, Massachusetts.

Diagnosing a food allergy is sometimes tricky as symptoms can mimic other conditions, especially an inhalant allergy. But blood tests used to determine inhalant allergy are not reliable indicators of food problems, nor is treatment the same for the two conditions.  

“We can do immunotherapy over time to combat ragweed, mold, pollen symptoms but it’s not particularly effective with food allergies,” McMillan says. Nor is administering corticosteroids or antihistamines, other treatments used to address atopic symptoms.

The gold standard for diagnosing and treating food allergy is discovering and then avoiding the allergen. Veterinarians will change the diet and watch the symptoms. The allergen is often a protein in the food—usually beef, chicken, fish, egg, milk or wheat. Vets will put the dog on a “novel” protein/carb combo, one the dog hasn’t eaten before, such as duck and peas, rabbit and sweet potatoes, venison and rice.  

The fact that a dog may have eaten a particular food for a while without symptoms throws people off— but it shouldn’t. A dog can develop a food allergy at any time, even to food he has consumed without problems for years.

The trial diet can consist of switching to a “hypoallergenic” brand. Most food-allergic dogs respond well to these commercial foods but for the tough cases that don’t, McMillan recommends the owner make the dog’s food from scratch.

“I get the dog off kibbles and tell the owners to buy fresh haddock or cod and to boil some potatoes. We start there and see what happens,” she says.

McMillan balances the protein/carbohydrate proportions and supplements the food with essential fatty acids and vitamins. She keeps the dog on the diet for at least 10 weeks. No treats, no chew toys, no table food.

“As the symptoms clear up, we gradually add another ingredient, like beef or perhaps a vegetable, one at a time. This is the best way to determine what allergens we’re dealing with,” McMillan says.

The road to wellness isn’t always straightforward. McMillan was the second vet Gentile consulted. After looking the dog over and listening closely to Gentile, McMillan determined Parish had sarcoptic mange, an itchy skin condition that, while difficult to diagnose (due to frequent false negatives from skin scraping), is quickly treatable. Then since the dog still had symptoms, McMillan helped Gentile select a particular hypoallergenic commercial food—a grain-free kibble made with turkey—that Parish could safely consume. Gentile noticed her pet’s GI distress returned every time Parish ate a favorite wheat-laden treat. Now Parish eats wheat free.  

The former stray, who once had “bare patches all over her coat and a pink baboon butt,” along with digestion problems, is living symptom free in her new home. “She’s so shiny now and has this amazing dark, rich color,” says Gentile. “She’s a beautiful, beautiful dog.”

For information about natural dog care and training, visit LW

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