In a dog or cat with an allergy, the immune system overreacts and produces antibodies to something that it would normally tolerate. That “something” can be a protein in food, flea saliva, dust, or storage mites, mold, pollen, or other substances the animal comes in contact with. Often, the allergy develops after prolonged exposure as antibodies build up, resulting in symptoms like hives, itching, diarrhea, vomiting, sneezing, swelling of the face, and red, inflamed skin.
Like people, dogs and cats can have adverse reactions to certain foods. Most of the time, it’s a hypersensitivity or intolerance that happens through a different mechanism than a true allergy does, although many of the symptoms are the same. But why would an allergy to beef or lamb cause intense itching? The answer goes something like this: As it’s digested, the protein in beef is met by misguided, overeager antibodies in the blood, which then attach to mast cells. When this happens, the mast cells—in tissues throughout the body—release histamines that cause inflammation in the form of redness, swelling, and, yes, itching.
There are no simple or perfect tests for food allergies in pets. But your veterinarian may be able to get some good information by looking at serum IgE (antibodies) levels in the blood in regard to different foods. You can also work with your doctor on an elimination diet to find the culprit. It means starting with only one kind of protein and one kind of carb, both of which your pet has never eaten before, and feeding this combo exclusively for around two months. If no allergies show up, you can introduce one new ingredient per week (a protein or carb from the old diet) to see if symptoms occur—and keep adding ingredients, one by one, until there are signs you’ve got your offender.
Pets can also develop allergies to substances in their surroundings—weeds, grasses, molds, dust and storage mites, to name a few. Some animals, for example, have become allergic to the mites that naturally occur on dry foods and grains. If you think this might be the case, stop feeding the food to your pet to see if the symptoms improve. If that’s not possible, it can be helpful to freeze it while it’s fresh and sprout (pre-soak) the grains if you’re doing DIY recipes.
For other environmental allergens, serum IgE testing may be able to identify the problem. Once you know what it is that’s making your pet miserable, it can be helpful to start a desensitization program with oral drops or injections that contain tiny amounts of the offending allergen, and “train” the body to learn to tolerate them. But that takes time. In the short term, you and your veterinarian will need to find ways to make your pet comfortable and discourage itching: daily wipe downs, frequent baths, washing bedding, and mitigating mold exposure, for example.
Improving gut health can also be effective. A growing body of evidence connects allergies in humans to the state of their gut microbiome. The same is starting to happen in the animal research world. So first, try to reduce chemicals, antibiotics, and other substances that impact the GI flora. Using pre- and probiotics is also a good way to encourage healing. At Shine Pet Food, we offer a Digestive Support Recipe which is grain-free (as is our Duck Recipe) and for the others we use sprouted grains. We are also able to make a special formula for your pet if needed.