Is your furry friend showing some concerning symptoms after dinner time? The timing might not be coincidental. Your cat or dog could be showing signs of a food allergy. Just like humans, cats and dogs can break out with skin problems, gastrointestinal issues, and more if they consume ingredients that cause allergic reactions. Dealing with symptoms can leave pet owners feeling confused and disheartened when searching for a cause.
The truth is that dog and cat food allergies do exist, but they are not common. Let’s discuss typical offending foods, clinical signs and symptoms, and how to deal with your cat or dog’s food allergies so they can get back to living their best life.
What is a food allergy?
Cutaneous adverse food reactions (CAFR), otherwise known as a ‘food allergy’ is a canine hypersensitivity disorder. There is still much unknown about CAFR, and research is ongoing. CAFR can often be mistaken for canine atopic dermatitis, which is seasonal allergies due to environmental causes, such as pollen and mold. It can be very difficult to tell the difference between a dog with CAFR and one with atopic dermatitis, which is why it is important to work with your veterinarian to figure it out.
What age do dogs and cats start showing signs of food allergies?
Most dogs and cats with food allergies develop symptoms between one and four years of age. However, new symptoms in dogs have popped up later in life anywhere from six months to 13 years old, and in cats from four months to 15 years old. If you have a hunch your four-legged friend might be showing symptoms, don’t let their age deter you from the possibility.
Dog breeds prone to food allergies
Any dog can develop food allergies, but some breeds are more prone than others. According to DVM360, these three breeds are more likely to have a food allergy:
West Highland White Terriers
Cat breeds prone to food allergies
Two separate studies have found that two-thirds of cats with food allergies were either Siamese or a Siamese mixed breed. Food allergies can happen to cats of any breed, but these are most common.
Food allergy symptoms in dogs and cats:
The most common sign of CAFR is year-round itchy skin, often around the head or rear, that doesn’t respond well to antihistamines or corticosteroids. If you see any of the following food allergy symptoms, chat with your veterinarian about common causes. Sometimes these symptoms are caused by other health conditions and your veterinarian will be able to guide you to the best treatment.
Bumps all over the body (in cats)
Hot spots (skin infections caused by excessive scratching)
Anal Gland infections
Scooting on the floor
Frequent bowel movements
Hair loss (caused by frequent scratching)
Itchy skin rashes
Red eyes (with and without discharge)
What are the most common food allergens in dogs and cats?
The most common allergens in dogs (beef, chicken, chicken's egg, cow milk, wheat, soy, corn) and cats (chicken, fish, dairy) are also common ingredients in many commercial dog and cat foods.
Can dogs and cats have multiple food allergies?
Yes, dogs and cats can develop more than one food allergy. However, they might also be experiencing another kind of allergy, like a seasonal allergy, flea allergy, or an environmental allergy, at the same time. Dogs and cats can be allergic to other things like:
Dust mites or mold mites
Contact allergens (like laundry detergent)
If a pet has multiple allergies things can get complicated and hard to untangle! If you’re not sure whether the root cause is dietary or environmental, your vet can help you figure out what kind of allergy your pet is experiencing.
How are food allergies diagnosed and treated?
Diagnosing food allergies is challenging in dogs and cats. Your veterinarian will use a combination of information from you, physical examination, and laboratory testing to rule out other causes, such as skin infections. There is no definite laboratory test that will give the answers you are looking for – the only way to diagnose a food allergy is with a 8-10 week food elimination trial. During a food elimination trial, your dog or cat will eat either a limited ingredient or hydrolyzed protein food and nothing else. I repeat: nothing else should pass your pet’s lips during this diet trial. The reason for this is to determine if symptoms resolve during the diet trial – if they do then it’s likely to be a food allergy, if they don’t, then there is another cause of the itching.
The length of the diet trial is determined by how long it takes for offending allergens to leave your pet’s system. It is important to work with your veterinarian to choose a food for your pet to eat during the diet trial, as the food needs to be formulated with proteins that your pet has not been exposed to before and proteins that have a low chance of cross reactivity with proteins that have been previously fed to your pet. It is highly recommended to only use therapeutic foods recommended by your veterinarian for elimination diet trials, as these diets have been manufactured in such a way to guarantee they are free of any other allergens. The same cannot be said for OTC maintenance diets, which when analyzed, have been found to be cross-contaminated with other ingredients that are not listed on the bag. While you may be tempted to use an OTC diet for a food trial because they are less expensive, it is not recommended and more than likely not to work. If your pet has been started on a diet elimination trial, it is also important to return to the veterinarian for a follow-up. It is important for the veterinarian to check your pet’s skin, ears, and ask you about how they are doing otherwise to make sure the food trial is making a difference. In some cases, additional vet-prescribed medication might be needed: antihistamines, corticosteroids, Apoquel, and Cytopoint may be prescribed to help with itching short-term. Veterinary approved Flea control is almost always prescribed when indicated. In addition, antibiotics or anti-fungal medication may be prescribed if there are secondary skin infections.
What if the elimination diet isn’t working?
It is important to be patient and overly communicative with your veterinary provider during this process. Remember – it can take several weeks to see improvement, and if your pet has any skin infections or other allergies (such as flea allergy or atopic dermatitis) then it can be more challenging to resolve symptoms and determine the underlying cause. In addition, it can be hard to control what your pet is eating at all times. If your diet trial doesn’t seem to be working, contact your veterinarian for a phone consult. In addition, look for the following ‘silent saboteurs’ that can be confounding your diet trial:
Small children that are feeding the pet or dropping food
You or other adults are feeding treats or people food
The pet ate another pet’s food
You give a medication or supplement or hiding medications in a product that has offending allergens in it (heartworm medication is the most common culprit)
Daycare, boarding facility workers or pet sitters are feeding the pet something they shouldn’t
Make sure to get everyone in the household on board, and provide instructions to daycare workers/pet sitters/trainers that the pet is on an elimination diet and should not be fed any unapproved food or treats.
Keep an open dialogue with your veterinarian: Remember, you can always talk to your vet about any concerns you have. You can ask your veterinarian about your pet’s nutritional needs, allergy symptoms, and advice about what to feed them.
Bottom line: Getting your furry companion the medical care they need is part of responsible pet parenting, and this is especially true if you suspect your pet has a food allergy. Consulting a veterinarian to obtain a definite diagnosis is important so you can begin to improve their quality of life