Have you ever had a “sneeze attack” and thought to yourself, “Ughh. It must be allergy season?” Allergens are common in many environments and usually are of no significant health concern. Many animals on occasion will have an itch that must be scratched – like your dog or kitty! A problem develops when there is an itch that will not go away …

If you are dealing with your animal constantly scratching, scooting on her/his rump, going bald from pulling out hair, and/or displaying other abnormal behaviors, Rover – we have a problem. For example, when scratching turns into an obsessive behavior, the skin becomes damaged, causing yeast to grow, leading to painful infections. What could possibly be causing all these problems?!

For an accurate diagnosis, always take your companion animal to a reputable veterinarian. But did you know that many skin, fur, hair, and behavioral abnormalities could be a result of your pet’s allergies (or intolerances/sensitivity) to the chow you feed your furry friends?

Step One: Identify Your Pet’s Symptoms 

Although evidence has not been conclusive and research is still underway, studies are finding that when young animals are treated with antibiotics, it changes the environment inside the gut and compromises the immune system. Thus, these compromised immune systems tend to be finicky about certain foods, especially proteins, and they might develop intolerances at any age.

So you may be thinking – that’s unfortunate, but what can I do now to help my pet live a healthy and happy life? The first step is figuring out what symptoms may indicate a food allergy.

Have you noticed any of the following of your companion animal?

  • Excessive licking and chewing on her/his ears, face, feet, and (eww) rear end
  • Going bald from scratching out hair
  • Crusty skin
  • Itchy, runny eyes
  • Persistent ear infections
  • Frequent snoring (inflamed throat)
  • Sneezing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Mucous bowel movements
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fur stained red from saliva

Let’s figure out the triggers…

Step Two: Identify What Food is Causing the Allergy

Allergic reactions could be caused by the protein in beef, chicken, pork, egg, dairy products, fish, soy, corn, wheat, and rice, as well as the included preservatives, additives, dyes, and … cockroaches (you never know who might be in your food – check it out!). Unfortunately, there is no real easy method for veterinarians to test for a specific food allergy, which means … put on your scientist goggles with a detective lens. It’s time to figure this out yourself!

1. Begin with a daily journal.

Include all foods in your pet’s diet. (Even the occasional potato chip you feed Rex or the munchies you think Tabitha may steal when you’re not watching…) Also, include a list of symptoms your pet is experiencing such as where s/he is scratching, how frequent s/he displays the symptomatic behavior, the condition of the skin, etc.

2. Rule out other causes of allergies.

Pet food allergies may only account for ten percent of all pet allergies. Consider if your pet could be suffering from allergies due to pollen, dust, dander, mites, fleas, mold spores cigarette smoke, prescription medication, shampoo, cleaning products, etc.

3. Start a 12 week food elimination trial.

Over the course of four days, gradually switch your companion animal from their current diet to their trial diet. A gradual change in food will ease the side effects of possible vomiting, diarrhea, constipation or refusal to eat the new food. The new diet will consist of one protein source and one carbohydrate source. All other foods should be discontinued. You could try either a commercially prepared therapeutic product (for the time crunchers) or a special home-made diet that might depend on your budget or time.

It may be necessary to confine adventurous outdoor cats indoors for the duration of the food trial to rule out environmental allergen factors. Be sure to inform your whole family and visitors of your pet’s special diet to avoid sneaky morsels that could invalidate the entire plan of discovery! NOTE: Be sure to consult with your veterinarian to discuss an appropriate plan specific to your companion animal’s needs.

4. Check out some new testing methods!

There are some new ways to play detective. For example, NutriScan claims to test for 24 different allergens. Veterinarians can perform blood and skin tests for allergies. However, these tests are a work in progress and tend to be inaccurate and unreliable (you should still talk to your vet about the food elimination trial).

Step Three: Keep Your Pet Healthy and Happy!           

It’s a process to make progress. Choosing the most beneficial diet for your pet can be a challenge. There are so many different pet foods on the market, and yet, many contain the same preservatives and additives. Continue to research about quality diets specific to your animal’s needs and talk to your veterinarian about the best food choices for your pet. Always examine your pet’s skin and take notice of any excessive scratching, licking, or chewing. Refrain from handing out treats or “junk food” no matter how adorable and pathetic those “puppy eyes” look. Avoiding allergy triggers will benefit your pet’s health and reduce their itchy stress (as well as their caretaker’s).

Image source: Suzanne Shroeter/Flickr