Is your pet constantly licking or biting at its paws? Do you feel like your pet always has an ear infection? Are they relentlessly scratching all over their body? Your pet may be dealing with an allergy. Now, since these symptoms can also be seen with many other health issues, it makes allergies one of the hardest ailments to diagnose in our furry friends. We are going to breakdown all we need to know about allergies and food sensitivities and what we can do to give our beloved family members some relief.
When the immune system enters a state of hypersensitivity after coming across a specific substance, the allergen, this would be classified as an allergic reaction. Now many pet parents think “my furry friend has been on the same food it’s entire life and never had a problem before, how can it be an allergy?”, which makes sense. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The immune system becomes sensitive to an allergen after being exposed on multiple occasions. It may take a couple months, or even years, to become sensitive, and over time it leads to the over-reaction of the immune system, the allergic reaction.
Allergies are complex immune reactions involving protein molecules from the allergen attaching to antibodies in the blood stream. Those antibodies attach themselves and the allergen molecule to a mast cell. The mast cell then releases compounds such as histamines, which cause the typical inflammation, swelling, and itchiness you see. The constant itching, no matter what the allergen is, always poses a risk of a secondary bacterial infection. You may also see symptoms like reoccurring ear infections, loose stool, vomiting, bloating along with the skin issues we typically associate with allergic reactions in dogs and cats. Allergies usually do not appear the first 6 months of age and seem to develop more often once the pet is over 2 years old.
Allergies can be classified in many ways, but we are going to group them based on the allergen. The types of allergies we will be covering are environmental & food allergies. The easiest way to treat an allergy is to remove the allergen from the environment or diet. Your pet may not be suffering from just one type of allergy, it may be a combination and therefore may require a combination approach to treatment as well.
Environmental allergies are unfortunately not always easily avoidable, due to the allergens being a part of everyday life, such as grass, dust, or mold. They are commonly referred to as atopic dermatitis. Many are seasonal allergens, and you may only see symptoms in the spring and summer while others can be year long. The most common environmental allergens are tree pollens, grass pollens, ragweed, molds, mildew, and dust mites. These allergic reactions are commonly seen with itchy skin, so they may be licking their paws, rubbing their face, and scratching areas like the underarms. Since many of these allergens are hard to avoid, treatment may be necessary to ease the symptoms your pets are feeling. There are four common types of treatments for atopic dermatitis.
- Anti-inflammatory therapy – Helps to ease symptoms through corticosteroids or antihistamines that are meant to block the allergic reaction. Medications your veterinarian may suggest includes Apoquel, a daily oral medication and Cytopoint which is a long-acting injection.
- Shampoo therapy – This is frequent bathing with hypoallergenic shampoos. It helps to soothe itchy inflamed skin and rinses off any allergens on the coat that could be absorbed by the skin. It is a great idea to pair it with a hypoallergenic conditioner to avoid over drying the skin and coat.
- Desensitization therapy – An “allergy shot” is administered weekly, which contains small amounts of the antigen (molecule of the allergen). This approach is restricted to those that have identified the allergen through allergy testing. The repeated dosing is meant to reprogram or desensitize the pet’s immune system. Success can vary, though approximately 50% of patients see a significant improvement and out of the remaining 50%, half see a decrease in the need for other therapies.
- Nutritional therapy – You may be thinking, “this is not a food allergy so what does nutrition have to do with it?” Some diets have been formulated to reduce the itchy sensation caused by atopic dermatitis. It includes ingredients that improve skin and coat and reduces the inflammatory response.
Some pet parents see significant results with just one approach, but many find their solution by combining multiple of the above therapies. Just like humans, each pet is different and will respond differently to the treatments. Try not to feel defeated as it may take some trial and error.
Food Allergies and Sensitivities
A food allergy or hypersensitivity can develop to any protein or carbohydrate. Most reactions commonly develop in response to proteins: beef, chicken, lamb, eggs, dairy products, and soy are commonly associated with food allergies in pets. They can develop at anytime in a pet’s life; it is not related to their first exposure to the ingredient.
A food allergy involves the immune system having a reaction meanwhile a food sensitivity does not involve an immune system response, but more so the digestive tract’s ability to digest the ingredient. Typically, the food allergy symptoms are very similar to those of environmental allergies, while a food sensitivity commonly shows more gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, loose stools, vomiting, and bloating.
Food allergies normally do not respond to corticosteroids or other medical treatments like atopic dermatitis. Many pet parents are very focused on differentiating food allergies and food sensitivities but when it comes to the best treatment, they are the same, you want to eliminate the reaction-causing-ingredient from the diet. How do we figure out what to exclude from the diet?
Since allergy symptoms overlap with many other illnesses, your veterinarian may want to rule out other conditions before focusing on allergies. They may recommend allergy testing to confirm the diagnosis and identify the allergen. It is important to remember not all types of allergy testing are the same and it is not always possible to determine the allergen accurately. The use of blood samples for allergy testing is proven to be highly accurate with insect or environmental allergies but studies have shown it is not reliable for food reactions in dogs and cats. Allergy testing through a blood sample at your veterinarian office can be quite pricey and seeing a veterinary dermatologist for skin testing under mild sedation may not fit in everyone’s budget either. This has led to the growth of allergy testing through saliva or hair follicle testing. This can provide some accuracy in identifying environmental allergens, but recent studies have shown it not to be the most accurate in diagnosing a food allergen. So, keep in mind when using these methods to diagnose a food allergy to take the results with a grain of salt, as false positives and false negatives are possible.
Now the best way to identify a food allergy or sensitivity is an elimination diet. We can’t lie, these are not known to be convenient and takes a commitment from the pet parent. Those who have gone through an elimination diet will tell you the results are well worth any possible frustration it may cause you. Your pet(s) will be thanking you and will be so much happier. It can be broken down into a few steps:
- Find a protein they have never been exposed to before. Start with making a food history, listing all the different proteins they have come across in their diet and treats. This includes anything they may have only received once, even if a small amount and it could have been years ago that they were exposed. This can be fresh or raw but should be pure with no other protein sources, spices, or any other additives. Many brands have made it easy with “pure” or “basic” formulas for this purpose.
- Find a carbohydrate they have never been exposed to before. Again, it is best to write a food history to keep track of what they have been exposed to and therefore, should not be included in the elimination diet. The source must be fresh, not pre-cooked and not seasoned. It should be boiled with nothing else added to the water and can be prepared in advance and kept in the fridge.
- Proportion of the diet should be 50/50. Once you have made the mix of equal parts meat and carbohydrate, you want to start with feeding 2 cups of the mixture per 20lbs body weight per day. The fresh food has a high moisture content, and you may notice them drinking less water as a result, depending on their previous diet. This mix is also highly digestible compared to more processed diets and you will notice that your pet is not defecating as frequently as before nor the same quantity. It is recommended to start “cold turkey” and start feeding the elimination diet without any of the past food included though some pets are pickier and may require a gradual switch over a week’s time. Remember that the elimination diet only starts once completely switched over.
- Exclusively feed the diet. It is very important that they only consume water and the elimination diet, or you may invalidate the trial. That means no treats, no human food, and no supplements. You may need to switch your heartworm/flea/tick prevention if using a flavoured oral form over to a topical form until the diet is finished. Speak with your veterinarian if your pet is on any other flavoured medications. It is best to feed the diet for at least 12 weeks, documenting any symptoms and their severity each day, before moving onto the next step.
- Reintroducing ingredients one by one. If the symptoms have significantly improved or even cleared up entirely, we can start reintroducing foods, one every 2 weeks. Keep an eye out for any reactions and document them and stop feeding the ingredient and give the body a chance to recover before adding the next food item. It may take multiple days or a couple weeks for symptoms to appear. If there is not a reaction you can add the food item to the list of approved ingredients. Finding one ingredient that causes a reaction does not mean the trial is over, they may be allergic to many ingredients. It is best to only do an elimination diet once and find all the culprits.
If the symptoms have improved some but not completely it is in your best interest to select a new carbohydrate and protein source and start again as the pet may have an allergy to the selected ingredients. Keep in mind that the symptoms may not completely resolve if the pet is also suffering from environmental allergies, and combination treatment may be needed.
If there are other pets in the household, it is important to ensure that the symptomatic pet does not have access to their food.
Natural Remedies and Supplements
What is great about the pet industry is that you always have options. You can go the medication route from you veterinarian or with the natural remedies or a combination of both. It’s about what works for you and your furry family members. We have talked about medical treatments you can receive at the veterinarian, but now we will dive into some product types we can provide to help ease any symptoms as the allergens are not always avoidable.
A great supplement for pets with allergies as well as many other skin issues is an Omega 3 and 6 supplement, aka fatty acid supplement. It can be found in many forms with the most popular being fish oils and tripe. Not only do they help boost the effectiveness of antihistamines and steroids, but it also helps improve the health of the skin and coat. The skin and coat are the first layer of defense of the immune system and keeping it healthy results in better overall health and protection. In addition, it helps soothe the common skin reactions such as the itchy sensation.
It may be surprising to some that a digestive aid like probiotics can help immensely when it comes to allergies. Not only does it help keep the balance of good and bad bacteria, but it is said that 70% of the immune system is in the gut. The immune cells in the gut interact with the diverse bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract which in turn can have an influence on how the immune system responds.
Another option to help boost the immune system is including antioxidants in their diet whether by whole foods or an allergy supplement. Some whole food examples include blueberries, cranberries, broccoli, spinach, and kale. Another antioxidant supplement is bee pollen, as with many of the other examples it has high amounts of Vitamin E and Quercetin compound which acts as a neutral antihistamine. They can be quite beneficial for minimizing skin reactions and other allergy symptoms.
An additional ingredient to look for in an allergy supplement is Turmeric. It is best known for the vibrant colour it provides for curries. The main component of turmeric is curcumin which has several health benefits. One benefit is its use as a very powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, which can help with reactions of the skin and gastrointestinal tract reactions that can result from allergies.
If you feel lost, you can ask one of our Healthy Pet Care Specialist to suggest one of the many allergy support supplements where they have done all the work for you. Each takes careful thought in incorporating their perfect mix of anti-inflammatories, antihistamines, and antioxidants to offer your pet some relief from their symptoms. When it comes to cats it is always a good idea to confirm all ingredients are safe for them as well as their dog friends.
In all scenarios, it is hard for there to be an immediate fix for allergies. It may take some trial and error on what works for your pet and their type of allergies. It can be a big commitment to stick with it and be consistent, but it is well worth the effort. The relief your pet(s) will feel will be a reward for all.