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  • 3 min read

How to Heal Your Pet’s Food Allergy

Today I want to discuss novel protein diets, because a lot of dogs and cats these days have food allergies. In addition to chronic or intermittent GI disturbances like vomiting, diarrhea and loose stools, often food allergies show up as skin problems. So itchy rashes, hot spots, bald spots, inflamed skin, and even recurrent ear infections can all be symptoms of food allergies.There are many additives in commercial pet food that can cause allergic reactions, but most often your dog or cat will develop sensitivity to one of the main ingredients in the food you’re feeding – usually a protein or carbohydrate.

Triggers for Food Intolerance

There are many theories as to why pets develop food allergies, and there’s probably some truth to all of them. We know allergies are the result of an immune system overreaction which only develops after repeated exposure to potential allergens. Many people believe the whole thing started with the “never switch your pet’s food” directive CEOs of major pet food companies began promoting 50 or so years ago as a way to gain brand loyalty. Certainly feeding your pet the same food every day, year after year, for many years will increase the chances of your animal reacting to a component in the food.

However, there are other factors to consider as well.

The vast majority of pet foods contain fillers like potatoes, grains, and other starches and fibers to help reduce the volume of meat that’s added to the food. This makes pet food more economical to produce. But these fillers aren’t biologically appropriate for cats and dogs.

Over time they create stress on the immune system, which in turn can develop a hypersensitivity to them. This is what leads to an allergic response.

Emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, dyes, and preservatives, not to mention the hormones and chemicals passed up the food chain in the meat found in pet foods, can also trigger food intolerances. Food intolerances can escalate to systemic allergic reactions. Last but not least, the quality of ingredients is important.

Feeding rendered, low quality sources of protein – for example, hooves, feathers, or beaks – has the potential to initiate an allergic reaction in your pet.

We also know that very common allergenic ingredients contained in many popular commercial pet foods – such as corn, wheat, rice, soy, eggs, milk, yeast, potato, and beets — are also potential culprits. Many pets react to certain animal proteins as well.

How Food Allergies Develop in Your Pet

You might be wondering how food allergies actually develop. Here’s what happens.

In a healthy body, the food that is eaten will be broken down into single amino acids and nutrients which pass from the GI tract into the bloodstream, where the body can make good use of them.

The GI tract is a semi-permeable barrier that is designed to thoroughly absorb nutrients that have been totally digested but keep out partially digested nutrients, as well as other indigestible things pets eat. As you know, dogs eat rocks, sticks, tree bark, poop – all kinds of strange things.

The GI tract plays a very important role in keeping out allergens and allowing in nutrients. If partially digested foods pass through the GI wall and into the bloodstream, the immune system will mount a massive allergic reaction triggered by these foreign invaders.

These pets all have dysbiosis – that’s the medical term. The layman’s term is leaky gut. All of these animals will have the same immune system response every time they eat the food they have become sensitive to. That response is what results in symptoms of chronic allergies.

Golden retriever scratching its neck with its rear leg

Introducing Novel Proteins and Carbs

Regardless of why the allergic response is occurring, both traditional and holistic vets recognize the animal’s body needs a break from the food he’s been eating. An allergic pet’s immune system needs a chance to simmer down, which usually results in a reduction in symptoms.

Integrative veterinarians like me use the concept of a novel or new protein diet as the first step in healing a pet’s leaky gut. Traditional vets usually call it a food allergy elimination trial or a ‘hypoallergenic’ diet. But keep in mind there’s no such thing as a true hypoallergenic diet, because any animal can react to any food at any time.

What these diets do is give your pet’s immune system a break from its battle against foreign invaders, and the way it’s done is to transition to a different food containing ingredients your dog’s or cat’s body isn’t familiar with.

As an example, if your dog has been fed a beef and rice-based food for the last three years, we would slowly transition her to a kangaroo and potato-based food. Or … if your kitty has been eating a fish-based diet and has developed an allergic condition, we might transition him to a diet containing a protein source like rabbit, which is novel for most pets.

It’s very important that both the primary carbohydrate and protein sources be identified in your pet’s current food so you can select a different food without those ingredients.

I’ve found it ineffective to switch just one or the other (either the carb or the protein). Transitioning from a chicken and rice-based food to a chicken and potato-based food will not, in my experience, make much difference. Both the protein AND the carbohydrate need to be replaced with novel ingredients.

In addition to switching the carb and protein sources, keep in mind the fewer grains and fillers fed, the less opportunity for allergic reactions and inflammatory conditions.

Allergic pets need to be on a single or novel protein source for a minimum of two months. I actually recommend three months for my Natural Pet patients, to allow the body time to clear out the allergenic substances and begin the detoxification process.

This is also the time when integrative vets will address a pet’s dysbiosis with appropriate probiotics and nutraceuticals. This is the key to fully addressing the root of food allergies, as without this step it’s only a matter of time before the cycle begins again and the hypoallergenic diet becomes hyper-allergenic.

Because each case of dysbiosis is unique and the variables causing each animal’s reactions are different, a custom formulated protocol should be designed by your pet’s wellness practitioner.

What Happens After the Elimination Diet?

At the end of an elimination food trial, foods are typically reintroduced slowly, one at a time, and the animal’s response is closely monitored. But if a pet has had dramatic improvement on a new diet, I often don’t push the reintroduction of food that could be problematic.

Many traditional vets recommend simply staying on the new food that minimized a pet’s allergic symptoms until the pet develops allergies to the new diet, at which time the vet will begin searching for another ‘hypoallergenic’ option.

I do not typically recommend this approach, having seen too many pets run out of novel food options. I encourage pet owners to find at least one and preferably two other protein sources that their pet can also tolerate so that every three to six months, they can rotate proteins and hopefully avoid further allergic reactions.

A pet that has had an allergic response to one protein source is more likely to develop sensitivity to the replacement protein over time. That’s why rotation and variety is important. Sometimes pets are able to tolerate a previously problematic food once their bodies detoxify and their GI tracts are healed and functioning normally again. This is especially true when ‘clean’ proteins are introduced.

Clean proteins are foods that are non-toxic, for example, fish that has not been exposed to mercury. Animals raised on a natural diet, like grass-fed rather than feedlot animals, as well as hormone-free animals, are better food sources for sensitive pets.

During and after a novel diet, I recommend natural supplements to aid detoxification, relieve allergic symptoms, and support your pet’s immune system. Your holistic veterinarian can help you select the supplements most appropriate for your pet’s individual needs.

Which Proteins Are Novel These Days?

So what, exactly, are novel proteins?

These are meat sources that your pet hasn’t consumed before. Lamb used to be the novel protein choice used for most elimination diets, because pet food companies didn’t use lamb in their formulas. But through the 1970s and 1980s, lamb became a popular commercial protein source. People overfed it. It’s really no longer considered a dependable novel protein to use in an elimination diet.

Today, most vets agree novel proteins include ostrich, beaver, quail, pheasant, rabbit, venison, bison, goat, duck, elk, alligator, and kangaroo.

Switching food families is sometimes necessary because a pet that is allergic to chicken can actually be allergic to all fowl, even duck. For instance, if your cat has eaten primarily chicken as a protein source, you’re better off switching to a mammal protein rather than another fowl protein source.

And remember — any treats you give your dog or cat must also come from that same new protein. A single allergenic treat given in the middle of an elimination diet can be enough to cause a terrible flare-up of allergic symptoms.

As an integrative veterinarian, my preference is to offer a metabolically low-stress diet during this time. That means foods with no grains or starches. Many of my patients actually have terrible concurrent allergic issues such as yeast and staph infections that are exacerbated by the addition of unnecessary carbohydrates.

Many traditional veterinarians totally disregard the high amount of carbohydrates in most commercially available hypoallergenic foods, choosing to address skin infections with antibiotics and antifungal drugs instead. To each his own, but that’s certainly not my preference.

Hydrolyzed Proteins

Another common recommendation by traditional vets is to feed a hydrolyzed protein diet. These diets are supposedly an alternative to novel protein diets, but I don’t recommend them for a number of reasons.

A hydrolyzed protein diet contains a single regular protein, let’s say chicken, which is a common allergenic food. Hydrolysis breaks down the chicken into particles so small that, according to the research, the protein is no longer recognized by the immune system as an allergen. The benefit, it would seem, is you can still feed your pet food she’s allergic to, but the protein molecules have been processed in such a way that they trick the immune system.

I really don’t see the point in this approach. First of all, the animal’s body is not actually being returned to health. It’s only being tricked into not responding to the food it has grown allergic to, assuming the hydrolyzed protein behaves as advertised.

Secondly, the methods and chemicals used in the hydrolysis process don’t convert the protein into amino acids in the same natural way your pet’s body does. And really, no one knows the long-term side effects that these unnaturally derived substances might have on the health of dogs and cats.

Soy is also commonly used as a protein source in these hydrolyzed diets. Soy, which is a common allergen for pets, is a poor quality source of protein, in my opinion. It’s totally biologically inappropriate for dogs and cats. On top of that, it’s estrogenic, which means it can eventually wreak havoc in your dog’s endocrine system.

Preventing Food Allergies in Your Pet

Obviously, preventing food allergies from occurring in the first place is the primary goal in my practice.

In my opinion, the very best way to prevent food allergies in your pet is to feed a balanced, species-appropriate diet. I recommend raw food. You can either make food at home, or you can buy a commercially prepared raw food diet. Whichever way you go, I also recommend strictly limiting or at least reducing the amount of grains and carbohydrates in your pet’s diet.

Rotate through three or four protein sources in your pet’s diet. It provides your cat or dog with a broad nutritional base and reduces the risk of food sensitivities by providing lots of variety.

Keep in mind that it’s an increasing trend among pet food manufacturers to use uncommon or exotic meats in their formulas, often combined with a conventional protein like beef or chicken.

Now, at first glance you may think this is wonderful. However, what happens is, the more exotic proteins introduced to your pet’s diet, the more difficult it will be to find a novel protein diet should the need arise.

Really, I think it’s better to rotate a single protein – let’s say, for three to four months at a time – versus feeding multiple proteins every day. If you need to create a novel diet at some point because your pet has developed a food allergy, it could be difficult to do if you have fed every protein that’s currently available on the market.

- Dr. Karen Becker

Nuggets of freeze-dried chicken for dog treats

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