November 10, 2009

Hypoallergenic diets for dogs and cats are gaining popularity, and do offer some health benefits, but some of the marketing hype can mislead pet owners because pet food allergies are entirely specific to the individual pet. A food that is ‘hypo-allergenic’ for one pet may still trigger reactions in others, and sometimes additional measures are needed to unearth the true cause. Since different pets are allergic to different ingredients, there obviously can be no such thing as a food that is hypo-allergenic or non-allergic for every pet on the planet! The key is to find out what ingredients your individual pet can and cannot tolerate, and choose or make his food accordingly.

What are pet food allergies?

There are lots of different theories about how and why pet food allergies occur. Most holistic practitioners agree that true allergic reactions are usually the result of an underlying health problem or system imbalance. All dogs and cats are exposed to a variety of allergens in daily life and never have a reaction of any kind. Pets don’t actually develop allergies as a result of exposure to allergens, but because they have suddenly become susceptible or vulnerable in some way.

Bad quality food in itself may deplete the immune system over time, because they are laden with toxins and other substances that place unnecessary burden on the body, or because they lack important nutrients, antioxidants, enzymes and so on. Many such nutrients may not be included in AAFCO nutrient profiles but are still vital for the long terms optimal health and vitality of a cat or dog. Vaccines, chemicals, medications like antibiotics or steroids, stress and genetics, can all predispose a pet to pet food allergies as well.

Pet food allergies are defined as immune system or inflammatory responses triggered off by certain foods. Other pets may not have true allergies but are still sensitive to certain ingredients, on a less severe level.

Some of the most common signs of pet food allergies include:

  • Itching and scratching
  • Dandruff or an excessively oily and odorous coat – pets eating good food are shiny, non itchy and have virtually no odor
  • Chronic ear infections and / or buildup of yeasty debris in the ears
  • Chronic licking at the feet, often causing a red tinge to the fur on the paws
  • Gastrointestinal upset (intermittent or persistent diarrhea, vomiting, gas, bloating)
  • General lethargy and lack of interest in life – or, hyperactivity

Allergies can also be inhalant (pollen etc) or environmental. For food allergies, many pet owners turn to so-called hypoallergenic pet food diets – with mixed results, because of several factors.

What is hypoallergenic pet food?

There is no such thing as ‘hypoallergenic pet food’ in the strictest sense of the term and using the phrase in marketing and product names can be confusing and misleading. The reason is that an allergy is entirely specific to the individual animal and a food that is ‘non allergenic’ for one pet may cause sever reactions for another. Just as a cake may be labeled ‘hypoallergenic’ for most human beings because it’s made without nuts, dairy and gluten, it could cause a severe and even fatal reaction for a person with a strawberry allergy, if it is made with strawberries.

It’s true that certain ingredients have a much higher incidence of causing allergic reactions than others but the key is to uncover what your own pet can and cannot tolerate. For many pets, the most common culprits are wheat, corn, soy, rice and sugar beet pulp – as well as various preservatives.

Steps to take for pets with pet food allergies

For many lucky pets, eliminating the high-risk ingredients of wheat, corn, soy, rice and beet pulp and usually identifying single proteins that they are able to tolerates, are the only steps needed to manage pet food allergies, and they go on to be free of allergies for the rest of their lives. A hypoallergenic pet food per se, is never actually required.

For others, the problem is more complex. They may be started on various new diets made with fish or exotic meats to no avail – because their body is continuing to react to one or more ingredients that their guardian is continuing serve up.

In other cases, feeding a food that’s very minimally processed with a single protein source, can make a vast difference. Many pets seem sensitive to beef in the form of a beef flavored kibble but can actually tolerate lightly cooked hamburger or a piece of raw steak very well. High heat processing used to make kibble, can alter the amino acid structure of proteins, making them unrecognizable to the body and triggering off a pet food allergy that vanishes when the human food equivalent is fed.

Sometimes, an elimination diet or ‘feeding trial’ is needed to uncover the cause of pet food allergies. This involves feeding an extremely simplified diet for about weeks – say, fish and sweet potatoes or bison and millet – until allergies subside – and then gradually adding in one new ingredient each week thereafter, to observe for any sign of intolerance such as itching or diarrhea. Laboratory based allergy testing is another option but can be costly – and occasionally the results are inconclusive or inaccurate.

In many chronic cases, real commitment is necessary to uncover what is causing a pet food allergy. Scrutiny of the label for everything that passes your pet’s lips, including snacks and treats, is crucial. Patterns often emerge where for example, diarrhea occurs every week after a dog returns from daycare and the cause is the cookies he receives there.

In addition to determining what foods the pet cannot tolerate – and committing to avoid them long-term, detoxification and support of the immune system with herbs can be immensely helpful. Supplementation with digestive enzymes and probiotics can help get the body back on track and ensure proper absorption of the foods being fed.

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