Let’s Talk Food Sensitivities

Posted on January 11, 2023

by Becca Johnson, CFVA

Posted January 11, 2023

The animal nutrition world has blown up and become quite overwhelming, particularly regarding food allergies and sensitivities. I would like to sort out some of the common questions surrounding this and how to navigate the wide variety of products available.

A big trend seen in marketing recently is products geared toward addressing food allergies or sensitivities. With all the hype, you may be surprised that only 10% of skin allergic reactions are from a true food allergy. The other 90% is made up of other environmental allergies (dust mites, pollens, molds) or fleas. However, suppose a true food allergy is suspected. In that case, your vet may recommend a food (or elimination) trial to help determine the protein responsible for the allergy. Blood allergy tests and intradermal testing is unreliable for determining food allergies. The best way to fully determine the cause of an environmental allergy is to consult a veterinary dermatologist.

A proper food trial can take up to 3 months. Your vet will choose either a hydrolyzed diet or a selected protein diet during this time. You can only feed the food recommended. Some treats are okay with those diets, but even they are not recommended to be given during the trial. If symptoms have been stable during the trial, you may start introducing treats and other foods gradually, one at a time, after three months, to determine which protein is causing the issue. If symptoms are still present when the trial ends, the doctor may recommend a different diet trial and start over. If symptoms clear up, that food should be fed long term.

Hydrolyzed Diet vs. Novel Protein Diet: There are two main food categories of hypoallergenic diets for food trials: hydrolyzed diets and novel protein diets. A hydrolyzed diet uses hydrolysis, which uses water to chemically break proteins into pieces that are so small that the immune system no longer reacts to them. Although this diet has a good source of protein for nutrients, I sometimes refer to it as the “non-protein diet,” meaning the body will not recognize any of the proteins that would typically cause a reaction. 

A novelty protein diet contains less commonly seen protein than sources like beef or chicken. Instead, there would be something like Venison, Duck, Salmon or Fish, Kangaroo, or even Alligator as the main protein. A prescription diet must be used for the trial, as over-the-counter diets may say they are a particular protein but often contain other proteins in the diet, which may trigger a reaction. Even if no other proteins were noted on the ingredient label, the food was likely made in a factory with trace amounts of the undesired protein. The difference with prescription diets is that the factory is cleaned before they start production on a food-sensitivity diet, so there are no trace amounts of other proteins.

Grains: Check out my Let’s Talk Nutrition blog for some information on ingredients. Though I mentioned grains there, I would like to touch on grains again. You may have heard the false statement that grains and corn are cheap fillers in pet food. This misinformation is used to promote some grain-free diets. The truth is most pets benefit from wholesome grains, which provide essential nutrients pets need to thrive and be healthy. The significant benefits your pet gets from grains are not always included in some of the ingredients pet food companies are replacing these grains with. An FDA study potentially links specific grain-free diets with canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a serious heart condition in dogs. Another debunked myth out there is that grains or corn cause allergies. Based on science, the most likely causes of food allergies are meat- or dairy-based ingredients, not grains. Grains are super digestible and an essential ingredient in your pet’s diet!

Raw (BARF) Diets: BARF stands for Bones and Raw Food. I need to mention this type of diet because there is a lot of misinformation saying they help with allergies and other issues. There is no scientific data out there supporting this belief. Some published recipes contain deficient and excessive levels of crucial nutritional factors, including Protein, Calcium, and phosphorus for an adult dog or cat. One study found that 90% of homemade pet foods were nutritionally unbalanced and incomplete for their designated pet. Food poisoning and bacterial contamination (including salmonella and listeria) are a big concern for your pet and yourself since you would be handling raw ingredients. There is also a risk of broken teeth, foreign bodies, or gastrointestinal perforation if bones are included in the diet. A Raw Diet would not be sufficient to feed in general but especially not for a food trial.

Medications: Another way to control allergies is to control the symptoms. This is true for both food and environmental allergies. Apoquel is often referred to as a miracle drug for managing the itch. It is animal-specific and addresses the reaction at skin receptors to decrease uncomfortable itching. There is also an injection called Cytopoint that also controls itching through modulation of the molecules that cause the irritation. Cytopoint lasts 4 – 8 weeks and can be given by a technician once a vet approves. Antihistamines like Benadryl, Claritin, and Zyrtec can also be safe for dogs, but you need to contact your vet for dosage, and they are typically only effective in 1 out of every five pets. While effective, steroids can cause harmful effects if given chronically and often have more side effects than those already listed. None of these medications should be considered without a conversation with your veterinarian. If you have not talked to a vet about your pet’s allergies before, please call to set up an appointment to be seen first.

Gastrointestinal (Gi): Some adverse food reactions show in the GI system instead of the skin. A food trial is still best to rule out a food allergy. Still, you may get away with an over-the-counter Purina, Hills, or Royal Canin sensitive stomach and skin diet to address a food intolerance (this is more of a sensitivity issue vs. a true allergy) or other inflammatory gut conditions like IBD or IBS. Switching proteins can also help with GI issues. I have seen some kiddos have diarrhea on something like Hills puppy chicken, but it gets better when they switch to the Lamb version. Indeed, there could still be chicken in the lamb version, but not enough to react to in those cases. Some companies even make puppy and kitten-specific GI diets. Not all diets are suitable for growing pets, so it is always best to ensure an appropriate life-stage diet is fed to your pet. Probiotics and other medications can also help symptoms. If your pet struggles with GI symptoms such as diarrhea, it is always best to consult your veterinarian to help rule out other causes, such as parasites, etc.

There is hope! You and your pet do not need to suffer from skin and GI issues. Feeding the correct diet for your pet can help. Working with your veterinarian to find the right combination of medication, diet and lifestyle can get your kiddo on the right track. No one wants to be uncomfortable, and it is easy to feel helpless when your pet is suffering. Please find comfort in knowing you are doing what you can and working with a doctor or veterinary professional to keep your kiddo feeling their best. It can be frustrating when your efforts are not immediately noticed. Unfortunately, food sensitivities are rarely a quick fix. Your patience is always appreciated, and we can also become frustrated, as sometimes it can take a while to figure out the underlying problem. We always have alternative options if the first plan doesn’t work. We are here for you and your pet and want the best for you. Thank you for reading this blog and being interested in your pet’s health and diet!

By Becca Johnson, CFVA

My name is Becca but I go by any form of Rebecca (Becky, Bex, or Rebecky just to name a few). I have been with Ankeny Animal and Avian Clinic since 2016. I enjoy my many roles here which include, Nutrition Coach, CSR, Compliance Coach and a member of the Fear Free Committee. Outside of work, I enjoy playing Sims 4 and hanging out with my husband and "fur kids" which include two dogs (Goku & Asuna) and two cats (Kirito aka "Kitty Toes" & Natsu).
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