Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Can Fido Have Food Allergies?

Pet Column for the week of November 17, 2008

Related information:

Services - Dermatology

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that four out of every one hundred children have a food allergy. Just as in humans, the other furry, four-legged family members can have food allergies as well.

Dr. Domenico Santoro is a dermatology resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. He says, "food allergies are much less common than flea and environmental allergies, but dogs can have them."

The most common food allergens in dogs are proteins such as chicken and beef, as well as dairy products. "Clinical signs of a food allergy usually start in a young puppy less than one year of age," mentions Dr. Santoro. Each animal can have different clinical signs, which can sometimes make a diagnosis difficult.

Many animals come into the clinic with itchy skin, ear problems, and recurrent skin infections. But not all animals with these symptoms necessarily have a food allergy. "The only way to make a diagnosis of food allergies is with a food trial," says Dr. Santoro.

A food trial means the animal is fed only one special diet for 8-10 weeks. If your pooch accidentally gets into the garbage, or sneaks a piece of meat off your dinner table, you must start the trial over again. Just one small slip up can be a problem, which is why food allergies are difficult to diagnose.

The diets used for suspected food-allergic dogs are not your average dog food. The trick is the animal can never have been previously exposed to the diet. "We need to use something new based on each individual patient for a trial to work," says Dr. Santoro. Common diets for food allergic patients are rabbit and potato, fish and potato, and even the more exotic  kangaroo.

While some owners succeed in only feeding the specified diet, they often forget that even something as simple as giving their pet a monthly heartworm pill can compromise the trial if these products are flavored with meat. It is also important to stop using flavored medications, vitamins, and supplements.

Dr. Santoro also mentions that, "We cannot do a blood test to see if animals are allergic to certain foods like they can in humans." The only tool the dermatologists have if they suspect a food-allergic dog is the food trial.

In addition to food allergies, pets can have an environmental allergy, which may be seasonal, most commonly in the spring, summer, and fall, or non seasonal since they can also be allergic to house mites. Diagnosing these problems can be quite difficult. But one point to remember in differing food allergies from a long list of other diagnoses is that food allergies occur throughout the year, and are not usually seasonal.

On a final note Dr. Santoro mentions that, "we can never cure any kind of allergy, all we can do is manage it, plus or minus certain potent drugs."

As always, if you are concerned about your pet, contact your local veterinarian.