Determining a Food Allergy
By Cricky Long
Mimi Drew had her dog Charlie for a little more than a year when he got his first ear infection. She took him to the vet, who sent Charlie home with ointment and a round of antibiotics.
After many trips to the vet over a nine-month period to treat chronic ear infections and itchy skin, Drew began to do some research. She ultimately traced Charlie's symptoms to a rare canine food allergy: beef. "I was surprised that my vet didn't even consider food allergies when Charlie had those symptoms," Drew says. "We could have spared Charlie a lot of suffering -- not to mention the vet bills I could have avoided."
Her vet was not necessarily to blame. Canine food allergies are not very common and, like human allergies, can be tricky to diagnose -- dogs often do not show any immediate symptoms. A dog that's allergic to a certain ingredient, such as soy, may remain symptom-free for years before experiencing any related problems.
When it comes to food allergies, it helps to know what to look for. According to Alexander Werner, DVM, of the Animal Dermatology Center, the signs are:
- Chronic/recurring ear infections
- Itchy face and paws
- Hair loss, especially around the eyes
These symptoms can almost always be attributed to other issues. However, once you've ruled everything else out, consider discussing the possibility of a food allergy with your vet.
How to Tell
The simplest way to determine if your dog has a food allergy is to put your pup on a hypoallergenic food-elimination diet. Kimberly Carvalho, DVM, says you should "pick a novel protein source that your dog has never had before and feed it for six-to-eight weeks." For example, a commercial lamb and rice formula works well if your dog did not previously eat this combination much before.
Carvalho advises that your dog must not have access to any other food, such as table scraps, bones or treats during the trial period. She also recommends transitioning your dog gradually by mixing small amounts of the new flavored food in with your dog's old standby until you are feeding exclusively the new food.
At the end of the trial period, provided your dog's symptoms are gone, try feeding your dog its original diet. If a food allergy is to blame, symptoms will return within two weeks. If this does happen, go back to the food that you used during the trial. If your dog's symptoms still have not cleared up, and you have ruled out other causes, keep trying different flavors until your dog's symptoms disappear. Usually you can stick with your favorite pet food brand throughout the process. If your dog previously ate beef and veggies, try chicken and rice, or vice versa, depending on your dog's prior diet.
Dr. Carvalho also points out that once you've successfully concluded the trial and gotten your dog's allergies under control, it is important to reintroduce treats one at a time, waiting six to eight weeks each time you introduce a new treat flavor, to make sure it does not lead to an allergic reaction again.
While food allergies can be frustrating for pet owners -- and no doubt, even more frustrating for dogs -- they are solvable. So continue with the suggested feeding techniques until you find a food combination that agrees with your dog.
Cricky Long is the author of The Complete Cat Organizer and The Complete Dog Organizer, as well as several other guidebooks for pet owners.