Food Allergies and Intolerances: Part 2
Discovering what individual foods a dog is allergic to or has an intolerance to is difficult.
In Food Allergies and Intolerances: Part 1 we defined food allergies and intolerances. The symptoms were explained as well as the problems associated with each. If you haven’t yet read that article, you might want to as this article is a follow up to the first one.
Although allergy tests have gotten much better over the years and can reliably identify allergies to many substances, including pollens, molds, mildews and many other things, they are not yet good enough to identify foods that cause allergic reactions. The best test to determine a food allergy is one that has been in use for many years—the elimination diet (often also called a food trial).
What is an Elimination Diet?
In an elimination diet, your dog is fed a new (to him) protein and new (to him) carbohydrate. This might be something like rabbit and quinoa or venison and barley. These should be foods he hasn’t eaten previously and no other foods are to be provided; he’s allowed to eat only these new foods.
This severely restricted diet is to be fed for at least 12 weeks, although in some cases your veterinarian might even recommend that it be followed for 16 weeks. At the end of this time period, your veterinarian will ask if your dog’s allergy symptoms have changed, lessened or disappeared. If the symptoms have not significantly gotten better, then the problem is not a food allergy. If the symptoms have gotten better but are not gone, your veterinarian might suggest a second food trial with a different protein and carbohydrate.
If the symptoms have disappeared, then your veterinarian will have you introduce one new food at a time, usually one a week or one every two weeks, and have you watch for reactions. If a reaction appears, then you can identify the cause of the reaction. For example, if your dog is eating rabbit and quinoa and all his symptoms disappear, then your veterinarian might have you add chicken on the first week, turkey on the second week, and beef on the third. If your dog is fine until he’s had beef for several days, then you know beef is one allergy trigger and your vet will have you stop feeding the beef. That doesn’t mean you’re done though, as your dog might be allergic to more than one food. Most dogs with food allergies are sensitive to a few foods, some to many.
Elimination Diet Tips
The food your veterinarian recommends for your dog to eat during the food trial depends on what he’s eating now, what symptoms your dog is showing and the severity of the symptoms. Because there are few commercial foods that contain only one protein and one carbohydrate with no other ingredients (including no flavorings, no artificial colors, preservatives or other ingredients) it’s often much easier to cook your dog’s new diet yourself. However, your vet may have a commercial diet in mind, and some recommend a prescription diet.
During this time while you’re feeding the elimination diet, do not give your dog any other foods or treats. That means no training treats, no dog biscuits, no chews, not even any flavored toys. Talk to your veterinarian before giving any food-based or flavored medications such as heartworm preventives. Stop any nutritional supplements and vitamins unless your veterinarian recommends them.
If you have other pets in the household, feed them away from the dog eating the food trial diet and make sure all other foods are picked up before the dog is allowed access to that area. This includes all other pet foods. Make sure the dog cannot get to the cat’s litter box or the rabbit’s cage as well.
It’s also important that everyone in the household understands how important this is. If the adults in the family are complying with the dietary rules but the children are slipping the dog some scraps of food from their plates, the elimination diet won’t work. When guests come to the house, put the dog in another room. While someone is cooking, keep the dog out of the kitchen. Keep in mind, it only takes one mistake and the diet has to begin all over again for another 12 weeks. It’s worth the effort to maintain the strictness of the diet.
When New Foods Are Introduced
Once your dog reaches the point in the program where foods are reintroduced to your dog’s diet, keep a journal or make notes on your phone as to what is introduced when and what reactions you see (or hopefully, don’t see). For example, “Date 12/12/15. One ounce of chicken is added to the evening meal. All is fine.” Then several days later, “Date 12/18/15. Daisy has been eating chicken for 7 days and has begun licking at her paws and chewing at the base of her tail. Her stools are soft.” This is the information your vet needs and, unless something else has happened (Daisy got into the cat food, perhaps), your vet will have you stop feeding your dog chicken, and chicken will be labeled a problem food.
Treating a Food Allergy
The treatment for a food allergy or intolerance is avoidance. Once problem foods are identified, then they should no longer be part of your dog’s diet. This generally lasts for the dog’s lifetime. Although some dog owners do try an elimination diet again later, perhaps in a few years, to see if the dog has changed, this doesn’t happen often as the elimination diets can be so difficult to do correctly.
If your dog has a relatively simple allergy or intolerance, with only a few foods causing problems, there are some commercial foods that could be fed. For example, The Honest Kitchen offers three foods with restricted ingredients. The Limited Ingredient Turkey Recipe contains turkey, parsnip, navy bean, coconut, pumpkin, and parsley. The Limited Ingredient Fish Recipe contains pollock, coconut, chickpea, celery, pumpkin, and spinach. The Limited Ingredient Chicken Chicken Recipe contains chicken, quinoa, sweet potatoes, spinach, parsley, and kelp. Choosing which food might be right for your dog will depend on what your dog is allergic to, of course.
If your dog is allergic to a number of different foods, or if your dog reacts to flavorings, colorings and preservatives, then feeding your dog a homemade diet might be the best choice. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation to a nutritionist who can provide you with guidance as to how to create a complete and balanced diet while avoiding the ingredients that cause your dog problems.
Prevention is Better than Treatment
An elimination diet is tough to do and feeding an allergic dog a restricted diet can be difficult. Your dog doesn’t know he shouldn’t eat certain things, but by restricting his diet, you can eliminate those problems associated with eating his problem foods. His health will be better and he won’t need the veterinary treatment to help gastrointestinal upsets, skin problems and potentially even a more severe allergic reaction.