Does your dog have a “sensitive” stomach? Does she react badly to certain foods? Is she itchy year round? Do you think she might have a food allergy? Given the hundreds of different ingredients used in poor quality commercial pet foods, it’s no surprise that some of them are not well received by the animals eating them!
Common symptoms of food sensitivity are vomiting, diarrhea, and itchy skin or rash-type eruptions. However, a reaction to food doesn’t necessarily indicate a food allergy. Many dogs have a food sensitivity or intolerance, but relatively few are truly allergic. Here’s the difference:
A food allergy may cause either gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting and/or diarrhea) or skin symptoms (itchiness, rash, hot spots). A food allergy is an immune reaction to a particular protein. Experts believe that between 10% and 30% of food reactions are allergic in nature. True food allergies tend to develop over long periods (months to years) in response to foods or treats the dog eats frequently or chronically. Food allergies are uncommon in dogs under one year of age. Common proteins, and therefore common allergens, include the following:
In addition to meat protein sources, corn, wheat and soy also contain protein. Currently, 70% of corn and 93% of soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. While the ultimate and cumulative effects of GM foods are still unknown, protein alteration is, by definition, a given.
Many poor quality dog foods contain high protein grain extracts, such as wheat gluten, which are used to create shapes (such as “slices” or “chunks”). Cheap dry foods commonly include corn gluten meal, which, at 60% protein, is used as a substitute for expensive animal protein.
Skin symptoms of food allergies may include extreme itchiness. Secondary infections with bacteria and yeast are very common. Just to complicate things a little more, allergic skin disease is more commonly associated with inhalant allergies (collectively referred to as “atopy”), fleabite hypersensitivity or other causes. It’s important to note that atopy causes skin symptoms and is often confused with food allergies.
A food intolerance causes symptoms primarily in the gastrointestinal system. A dog experiencing symptoms related to food may be sensitive or intolerant to one main ingredient, or to one or more of the colorings, preservatives, texturizers, palatability enhancers, or other substances in any of the 27 categories of allowable pet food additives. Food intolerances can occur at any age and involve any ingredient.
1. Treating sensitivities
For food allergies, a full “diet trial” is warranted to determine the allergycausing ingredients. The dog is fed one “novel ingredient” or hypoallergenic food for eight to 12 weeks. The choice of ingredient or food depends on what your dog was eating before; all the protein-containing ingredients in her customary diet must be avoided.
Choose a protein that is not included in your dog’s normal food. Possible alternatives include venison, rabbit, duck – or even emu, kangaroo or beaver! Dogs already eating a single-protein food may do fine on different proteins like fish, lamb or turkey, even if they are common in other foods.
Also opt for novel carbohydrate sources (since all carb sources contain some protein), such as green peas, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice or barley.
When choosing the trial food, note that the word “poultry” may include chicken, turkey, duck, quail or other fowl. “Meat” is usually beef, but may legally include pork, lamb and goat. It’s best to choose a food with specifically named single ingredients. A diet trial must include only the test food and water – no exceptions! Just one goof (such as giving a treat or supplement containing beef liver to a beef-allergic dog) could take you back to square one.
Digestive symptoms may resolve quickly, but skin symptoms are far more persistent. If symptoms do clear up, you can then challenge your dog with one ingredient at a time to figure out what was causing the problem.
In addition to high quality commercial foods, many people have had great success using raw meat-based and homemade diets. Many animals that are allergic to a particular protein in cooked food do well with the raw version of the same protein.
2. Treating intolerances
The treatment for food intolerance is simple. Changing the brand or flavor of food may be all you need to do to resolve the problem. Symptoms will diminish or disappear within days. Of course, this may be easier said than done with very sensitive dogs, since they may react to multiple foods. To maximize success, choose good quality natural foods without artificial additives. Don’t forget that your dog still needs variety to prevent worse problems down the road!
Supplements for sensitivities
• Digestive enzymes: Can be given with food to help your dog break down proteins more completely, so they are less likely to trigger an immune response.
• Probiotics: Help keep the gut bacteria happy and healthy, and appear to have some anti-inflammatory properties.
• Omega-3 fatty acids (marine): Are naturally anti-inflammatory, as well as important for skin healing. The intestinal tract is lined with a type of skin cell that can also benefit from Omega-3 supplementation.
Variety is a major key to preventing food allergies and intolerances. Remember, food allergies develop when a dog eats the same thing regularly or for a long time. And dogs that develop an allergy to one food are more likely to eventually react to other foods too.
Stick with high quality natural foods that don’t contain “mystery meat” (unspecified meat, liver or other protein sources), synthetic preservatives or other artificial additives.
High quality natural foods tend to contain purer ingredients that are less likely to cause an adverse reaction.
Lastly, remember that stress plays a big role in many health issues, especially those involving the digestive and immune systems. Flower essences and herbs can be valuable aids here. Give your dog plenty of “quality time” every day. Exercise is nature’s greatest stressreducer, so get out there and walk the dog. You’ll both be healthier!
A growing number of companies offer premium diets and treats formulated for dogs with food allergies or intolerances. They’re not only made with high quality whole protein sources, but are free of the grains, artificial additives and other ingredients that can trigger or worsen sensitivities. Some, such as California Natural Pet Foods from Natura Pet offer a selection of limited-ingredient grain-free diets for dogs with multiple sensitivities. The diets are formulated to help promote skin and coat health. Foods from Castor & Pollux feature natural chicken, fruits and veggies as well as brown rice and oats, but no corn, wheat, soy or additives. And Solid Gold offers a selection of grain and gluten-free diets made from natural ingredients.
For hypoallergenic treats, Chasing Our Tails offers products that are gluten and grain free, as well as vegan treats that contain no animal products, corn, soy, wheat, barley, rye or oats. “Most dogs have food sensitivities to corn, wheat and soy,” says owner Steve Trachtenberg. “The grain free treats are 35% meat and formulated using garbanzo bean flours.” The company’s vegan treats are made from natural peanut butter and organic roasted vegetables.
Veterinarian Dr. Jean Hofve has researched pet food and feline nutrition for more than 16 years. She has written extensively and has been interviewed on radio and television about pet nutrition, supplements and the commercial pet food industry. She is an industry advisor to AAFCO and co-authored Holistic Cat Care with nutritionist Dr. Celeste Yarnall.