What exactly are pet food allergies?

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. While often referred to as ‘allergies’, these types of lower-grade long term reactions to diet are more accurately described as food sensitivities.

A food allergy or sensitivity is entirely specific to the individual animal and a food that is ‘non allergenic’ for one pet may cause severe 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. Similarly, a “hypoallergenic” pet food made with, say, lamb and rice or duck and potatoes, will not even come close to improving the situation for a dog who’s allergic to lamb, or potatoes.

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.

Feeding a single type of food long-term without any dietary variety is also thought to be linked with an increased risk of food-intolerances developing. Pets that enjoy a varied, whole-food diet develop far fewer food allergies than one-food pets. 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. 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 and by-products.

Steps to identifying allergies and sensitivities: The Elimination Diet

Start off feeding an ultra simple diet of ideally, just two ingredients. Many vets recommend turkey and sweet potatoes, and nothing more. You’ll probably have to home-make these meals for the test period. The idea here is to ‘eliminate’ everything else from the diet in the hope that the allergies or yeast infections will at least begin to show signs of starting to subside. (If they don’t, try just turkey and quinoa or maybe beef and sweet potatoes instead). Don’t feed any other foods or treats at all, as these can throw off your results.

Feed this ultra-minimal diet for about 2 to 3 weeks and possibly even longer, to observe for improvements. You probably won’t see a complete cure but you should start to see a little less itching and irritation. Once you’re at this point, you can begin to very slowly add additional ingredients, one at a time only, at a rate of one every one or two weeks. Don’t feed any other treats or ‘unplanned’ foods still. Keep a record of what you’re adding in each week and what reactions if any, occur. You may find you can add green beans one week and oatmeal the next but as soon as you add flax, she gets all itchy again. Note this, take out the problem ingredient, and make a note of it.

It’s a time consuming process involving a certain amount of trial and error, but an elimination diet really can work in helping you to work out what foods your pet can and can’t tolerate. Some pet owners are amazed to discover that their dog can tolerate almost anything that’s home-made, raw or minimally processed yet the moment they switch to a highly-processed kibble of the same ingredients, the allergies flare back up. There are a couple of suspected reasons for this: Either the kibble is laden with chemical preservatives which are causing the reaction, or it was processed under such extreme heat and pressure that the amino acid structure of the raw ingredients was altered and your dog’s body can’t even recognize that ‘chicken meal’ as true chicken!

Once you’ve pinpointed the allergies, you can either continue to home prepared meals, or try a very minimally processed diet with just a few simple whole-food ingredients. Many people have success with our Thrive recipe, which is chicken and quinoa (an ancient, gluten-free seed) plus vegetables – no fruit or flax.

If you don’t have the time to home-make your dog’s meals, the other approach is to feed a completely grain-free pet food diet for a few weeks and see if that does the trick. Our Embark and Force are both 100% grain-free, as are most of the commercial raw food diets on the market.