Elimination diet for dogs and cats
Food allergy is an increasingly common problem in our dogs and cats. It can manifest itself in different ways. The best way to counteract it is to conduct an elimination diet on your dog or cat.
Food allergy in dogs and cats
First of all, it is necessary to explain what a food allergy actually is.
Food allergy is a response of the immune system. The body’s defense mechanisms overreact to factors called allergens. In short, it means a condition in which the body defends itself against factors that do not actually pose a threat to it.
We also have a second condition called food intolerance. It is often mistakenly confused with a food allergy. Food intolerance is caused by metabolic disorders and the impact of toxic ingredients contained in the dog or cat’s diet on the body. It has nothing to do with the animal’s immune system at all.
Factors causing allergies in dogs and cats
Food allergy in dogs and cats can be caused by any dietary ingredient that contains proteins because they are the carriers of allergens. To give specific examples, allergy can occur to any meat, eggs, vegetables, grains, and even supplements and herbs.
It should also be remembered that food allergies may or may not occur to types of meat from similar species groups, i.e. if a dog or cat is allergic to chicken, it does not mean that it will also react badly to goose or turkey.
There are also cases where one product from a given type of meat may cause allergic reactions, while another may not. Therefore, all the so-called Hypoallergenic food is usually a marketing ploy, because with such a wide allergy panel it is very difficult to assess what actually causes allergies to our dog or cat.
Most often, however, they are allergic to unnecessary ingredients contained in food, such as soy, rice, corn, wheat and other cereals. They are also often allergic to plant proteins contained in peas, beans or potatoes.
In my dietary practice, I also notice the relationship between the occurrence of food allergies depending on the degree of product processing. Dogs and cats eating dry food are much more likely to suffer from food allergies. Due to its production process, dry food requires a high degree of processing of the primary raw material. I have personally had cases where a dog or cat eating dry food based on chicken showed allergy symptoms, and after switching to BARF diet also with chicken, the symptoms disappeared.
Symptoms of food allergy in dogs and cats
The most common symptoms of food allergy are skin and fur problems. Much less common, but gastrointestinal problems also occur. It is estimated that 10 to 15% of cats suffering from food allergies also have gastrointestinal problems.
The most common symptoms of allergies include:
- excessive scratching, especially around the neck and muzzle;
- licking spots on the skin;
- inflammation manifested by redness, especially around the muzzle, ears and abdomen;
- biting and licking paws;
- gastric problems such as vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence;
Allergy to dust mites
Often forgotten, but equally dangerous, is dust mite allergy. It is considered one of the most difficult allergies, especially when we are talking about dogs and cats eating commercial food. If our pet shows allergy symptoms while eating food, the first thing we look for is the problem with the ingredients of the food. However, it often happens that mites are the problem. The culprits are the so-called storage mites, i.e. those that feed on products, most often plant products, already in warehouses, before the food is produced.
Dry foods pose the greatest risk, which is another reason for their disadvantage. These mites, even if killed or refrigerated, present in the food can still cause an allergic reaction. Therefore, in the case of the BARF or diet cooked dietthis is not a problem because we use fresh and, above all, appropriate quality ingredients.
How to deal with allergies in dogs and cats – elimination diet
Before I move on to the topic of the elimination diet, it is worth mentioning the issue of allergy tests. Many veterinary sources indicate that conducting such tests is unfortunately not reliable. This means that the test may show that our dog or cat is allergic to a given type of protein, but in reality, this will not be true. However, allergy tests should not be treated as something completely unnecessary, because if we decide to undergo such a test, the result can be treated as a starting point for carrying out an elimination diet.
What is an elimination diet?
In short, the elimination diet involves using one type of protein in the diet for a certain period of time, and over time we add another one, all the while observing the dog or cat. In this way, we are able to assess what actually causes a food allergy in our pet.
The problem is that, unfortunately, there is no single method of conducting an elimination diet that will work for every animal suffering from food allergy. Each case must be approached individually and this is also how I approach my patients. If you are interested in what my nutritional consultations look like, I encourage you to read the article: “What do nutritional consultations with a zoo dietician look like?”.
It is best to start an elimination diet for a dog or cat by using a type of protein that the animal has not had contact with before. This way we start from point zero. Less popular types of meat include, for example, ostrich, kangaroo, rabbit, reindeer, nutria, buffalo, and horse meat.
It is much easier to implement such a diet in dogs and cats that are on a home-cooked or raw BARF diet. This is due to the fact that we select the ingredients ourselves and at any time we can subtract or add an ingredient. Of course, it is possible to carry out an elimination diet using commercial food, but you should always remember that you are using a ready-made product containing many ingredients, where virtually each of them will be a potential source of food allergy.
When we manage to find a source of protein that does not cause allergies in the dog or cat, we use the so-called provocation with a new protein to detect whether the body will also respond defensively to it.
I often get asked if we manage to find one type of protein to which a dog or cat is not allergic, can they just stay on it for the rest of their life? Unfortunately, the matter is not as simple as it may seem. We must remember that the body of dogs and cats needs, among others: for individual amino acids, so it is always recommended that their diet be varied and based on different types of meat.
Moreover, if we follow a diet based on one type of meat forever, we risk developing an allergy to this type of protein, and the animal may simply get bored with this diet.
How long does an elimination diet last for dogs and cats?
Unfortunately, there is no clear answer here, because depending on the case, it may last several weeks and sometimes even several months. On average, it is assumed that for one type of protein, the elimination diet is carried out for a period of 8 – 12 weeks.
An important rule in the elimination diet of dogs and cats
When deciding on an elimination diet, we must be aware that it is a restrictive diet. This means that any situation in which we allow our dog or cat to eat a different type of protein than the one currently used in the diet, leads us to the starting point and the elimination diet should be started again. This is due to the fact that food allergy may manifest itself with a delay, so any mixing of protein during the elimination diet disturbs its final result.
This is very important when using delicacies and if we decide to use them, we should be aware that they must fully match the protein used in the basic diet.
Foods with hydrolyzed protein
It is often recommended to use food with hydrolyzed protein as a solution for dogs and cats suffering from allergies. A hydrolyzed protein is one that is broken down into amino acids during the hydrolysis process and then put back together again during the neutralization process. Such a protein has a lower molecular weight and its purpose is to prevent the body suffering from allergies from recognizing it as an allergen. However, in practice, unfortunately, this solution does not always work. In many cases, despite the use of protein hydrolyzate, the dog or cat’s body still shows symptoms of food allergy.
It should also always be noted that food containing hydrolyzed protein very often also contains other types of protein, which may also be a source of allergies.
You can find more about food allergies in dogs in the article: “Food allergy in dogs – diagnosis and prevention”.