If your pet is constantly scratching or has frequent stomach issues, you might wonder if a food allergy is to blame. It’s possible, but what’s going on could be something else entirely.
Food Allergy or Intolerance? Allergies to food are actually not that common in pets. A true food allergy causes an immune response and can even result in anaphylaxis (think of peanut allergies in people). The most common allergies in pets are caused by fleas (flea allergy dermatitis) and inhaled environmental allergens (such as pollen or dust mites).
An allergy results when the immune system overreacts to a specific substance that the pet has been exposed to in the past. In the case of food allergies, most pets become allergic to a specific protein or ingredient, such as beef, chicken, dairy, or eggs. Fish is also a commonly reported food allergy in cats. It’s possible but less likely for pets to have an allergy to wheat or another grain present in pet foods.
True food allergies can be life-threatening.
However, not all problems related to food are caused by allergies. When a certain diet doesn’t agree with a pet, a food intolerance could be the culprit. Also sometimes referred to as a food sensitivity or hypersensitivity, a food intolerance is similar to an allergy in the sense that a particular ingredient or property of the food (such as additives or too much fat or fiber) is the cause, but a food intolerance does not involve an immune response. Food intolerances are more common than food allergies.
In short, here’s the difference between the two:
· Food allergy—Usually a reaction to a certain protein in food; involves an immune response and can be deadly
· Food intolerance—Causes difficulty digesting certain foods or types of foods; does not trigger the immune system
Veterinarians consider both food allergies and food intolerances to be “adverse food reactions.”
Signs of Adverse Food Reactions in Pets
A recent switch to a new diet isn’t always a sign of a food allergy. Pets can become allergic at any time. Both food allergies and intolerances can cause similar symptoms. Dogs and cats with food allergies or an intolerance can suffer from skin conditions, gastrointestinal (GI) issues, or both:
· Itchy skin
· Itchy ears and rears (dogs)
· Itchy ears and head (cats)
· Ear infections
· Poor coat condition
· Hair loss
· Red, irritated skin
· Vomiting within a few hours of eating
· Diarrhea or soft stool
· Frequent bowel movements
· Weight loss
These symptoms of food allergies or an intolerance are usually present year-round, rather than seasonally.
Allergies can also cause anaphylactic reactions. Pets rarely have a severe anaphylactic reaction, but those with a mild reaction may develop hives and/or swelling of the face, including the lips, muzzle, and area around the eyes. If your pet develops hives or swelling of any part of the face, call us right away.
Pets can develop a food allergy at any age.
Figuring Out Food Allergies With Your Vet
Your Bridle Trail veterinarian will first rule out other potential causes of your pet’s symptoms. That’s because flea allergies and ear mites can cause skin problems that are similar to those caused by adverse food reactions in pets. In addition, parasites, bacterial and viral infections, pancreatitis, and other medical conditions can cause GI issues.
It can also be a bit tricky to find a definitive cause for food allergies. Tests are not accurate for diagnosing food allergies, so narrowing down the specific protein that’s to blame often means putting a pet on a food trial (also called a dietary elimination trial or elimination diet).
During a food trial, we have to restrict the pet from eating all but a few ingredients or a very specific food, which is typically a novel or hydrolyzed diet:
· A novel diet is one that has only protein(s) the pet hasn’t been exposed to before (sometimes difficult to find).
· A hydrolyzed diet is one in which the food has been processed in such a way that the proteins don’t trigger an immune response in the pet.
During the trial, the pet must eat only the specified food for several months. If the pet gets better, we switch back to the original diet. If the pet’s symptoms return quickly on the old diet, then we know something in that food is causing the problem.
In some cases, we may be able to switch the pet to a new diet and avoid symptoms without the need for a food trial.
Treating Adverse Food Reactions
The good news is that once we know the culprit, we can avoid it and prevent your pet’s food allergy or intolerance. While we’re figuring out the cause, we will treat your pet for any infections or GI symptoms. If you’re concerned that your pet may have a food allergy, schedule an appointment with your Bridle Trail veterinarian. We’ll work with you to figure out what’s causing your pet’s symptoms and get your pet relief.