It’s NOT JUST Allergies! Food Allergies: Over-diagnosed and Less Common Than We Think

by Sarah Griffiths, DCH in Health and Wellness
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Written by Sarah Griffiths, DCH and Inna Shekhtman

March 28, 2018

Did you know that food reactions are not necessarily allergies? True food allergies are actually very rare and account for only 10% of all allergies seen in dogs and cats. Unfortunately, the words “allergy” and “intolerance” are often used interchangeably and can result in the wrong treatment plan being applied.

Allergy or allergic reaction occurs when your pets’ immune system reacts to a specific perceived “threat” that enters the body, such as pollen, viruses, bacteria, and other foreign protein-based substances. The immune system sends its army and the external symptoms that we observe are a manifestation of that internal battle.

Dogs and cats are not born with allergies – they develop over time, usually because the immune system is overwhelmed to the point where it may start to react to things that it would normally consider harmless.  Stress can be brought on by many things including poor diet, drugs, vaccination, poisoning and more.

Intolerances or food sensitivities occur when your pet’s digestive system produces a hypersensitive reaction to a specific food, with reaction increasing over time. Unlike allergies, the reaction to foods will increase gradually over time, so it’s important to watch for this.

There are several underlying causes of food intolerances.  One possibility is that your pet lacks the enzymes to digest a specific food (a condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or EPI). The other, more common reason is that the gut is unhealthy and is not optimally processing the foods that your pet is consuming.  For example, if the food your pet is eating is causing inflammation in the digestive tract, it could drastically alter the permeability of the gut and its ability to absorb nutrients and prevent unwanted substances from entering the body.  This is the leaky gut syndrome, and if not properly treated could lead to more significant issues affect every aspect of your pet’s health.

Take a look at the table below to help identify what might be really going on with your pet:

Symptom Allergy Sensitivity Bacterial/Fungal
Reaction time Usually reaction occurs immediately or shortly after exposure to allergen. Build up over time with exposure increasing in severity over time. Usually symptoms are chronic and get worse over time Bacteria and fungus can be growing without perceived symptoms arising until infection can be perceived by smell, sight, etc.
What triggers reaction Allergen:  Grass, pollen, dust and other airborne particles, flea bites, food. Specific food ingredient – reaction builds over time with exposure. Bacteria or fungal overgrowth.
Anaphylaxis ×    
Bloating  × ×  
Diarrhea × ×  
Ear Infections x   x
Gas and burping   x  
Hot spots x × ×
Itchy /Dry Skin x x x
Licking or biting x x x
Stinky skin/coat x × ×
Tear stains   × ×
Vomiting   x  
What is happening? Your pet’s immune system is reacting to a specific allergen, because it perceives it as a threat. Your pet’s digestive system produces a hypersensitivity reaction to a specific food, with reaction increasing over time. All animals have some bacteria and fungus, but it is balanced.  Your pet has an overgrowth of bacteria or fungus.

IMPORTANT: If you don’t treat the source of the food intolerance (like leaky gut), your pet will continue going through a vicious cycle of having to switch foods until they run out of options. Switching diets will offer temporary relief but it is critical to resolve the underlying damage to the intestine to avoid longer-term more significant health problems! Remember that if your pet’s digestive tract is damaged, the external symptom is just one piece of the puzzle. It will also affect your pet’s ability to properly absorb essential nutrients, which will lead to long-term deficiencies and other serious health issues!

Gut Health, Probiotics and Diet

The digestive tract has three main functions:

  • Digestion
  • Absorption
  • Prevention of toxins and other unwanted substances from entering your body.

It is the first filter of the immune system.  This is possible because your digestive tract contains a host of bacteria called “Probiotics”, that help with the digesting food, production of vitamins, breaking down toxins and acting as a filter for what is allowed to move into your bloodstream. In a healthy gut, there is a constant balance of good and bad bacteria that fulfill this vital function.

An imbalance in the intestinal bacteria can seriously compromise your pet’s health and can even resemble allergy symptoms.

Causes of Gut Imbalance

  1. Antibiotics: Antibiotics destroy all bacteria – healthy and unhealthy. If the good bacteria are not replenished immediately after a round of antibiotics (by taking a probiotic supplement), it increases the risk of bad bacteria overrunning the digestive tract.

  2. Diet: What you feed your pet can dramatically alter the balance of the gut microbiome. A high-quality diet feeds the good bacteria and provides the resources for them to thrive. Diets high in processed carbohydrates and sugars feed the bad bacteria and can cause an overgrowth and imbalance.  Raw is the most natural diet for dogs and cats to eat. If you cannot feed raw, then a good quality grain-free canned food will help maintain a healthy gut as well. Explore our blog further for all you need to know about raw diets for dogs and cats!

  3. De-worming medication, Chemical Flea Preventatives and Steroids:Chemicals can throw gut bacteria into chaos. Try and minimize the use of these products and give your pet a Probiotic to help rebuild the balance after.  A great alternative to chemical deworming medication is coconut meat (Olie Coconut Crumble is a supplemental form of coconut meat if you can’t find the real thing). You can also consider sending a stool sample to your vet for testing to see if intestinal parasites are present.

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The Holistic Approach to Addressing Allergy Symptoms

The good news is that by restoring the gut to an optimal level of health, you can significantly reduce food sensitivities and intolerances and improve your pet’s digestion.  If the intolerance is very severe, check out the Leaky Gut Protocol by Adored Beast.

If it is mild, your health care plan would look something like this:

  1. Give your pet some broth to help heal the intestinal lining. Click here for our article on bone broth including a great recipe.
  2. Start your pet on a good quality probiotic– click here to learn more about choosing probiotics.
  3. Switch your pet to a food that is as minimally processed as possible (preferably a good quality grain-free canned food with a novel protein that your pet has not been exposed to yet). If possible, switch to raw. Grains and other sugars in commercial kibble feed the opportunistic bacteria and change the pH balance in the digestive tract, creating an optimal environment for these bad bacteria to thrive. Raw ingredients are also easier to digest and put less stress on the digestive system.
  4. Add some good quality fiber or prebiotics to feed the healthy bacteria in the gut - click here to learn more about choosing prebiotic foods.
  5. Add a digestive enzyme and raw green tripeto aid in digestibility of foods until the gut is healed and inflammatory symptoms subside.

Unlike food intolerances, once your pet becomes allergic to something, their immune system will continue reacting to that allergen. Here is what you can do to help minimize the symptoms for your pet:

  1. Help manage the underlying problem: Providing better support for the immune system is the first step to returning your pet’s health. The immune system begins in the gut, which is the first filter for what enters our bloodstream. For more information about gut health, see the Probiotics section below. Offering your pet a healthy diet (minimally processed and containing quality ingredients) will also help support the immune system by providing it the nutritional resources it needs to thrive.
  2. Identify the allergen and try to avoid:While you work through the cause of the symptoms, review the pattern of your pet’s reactions and identify the most likely culprits. Is the reaction seasonal?  Does it occur after walks or swims? Does it occur right after eating?
  3. If can’t avoid the allergen, help alleviate the symptoms:There are many effective topical herbal options for itchy skin and ears such as calendula and coconut oil. Antihistamines like Benedryl can help reduce the symptoms of and allergic reaction and make your pet more comfortable. Homeopathy can be an effective alternative to antihistamines.

What about conventional treatments like hypoallergenic diet, steroids, etc?

The conventional approach to treating allergies is to eliminate the substance causing the reaction and to reduce symptoms with immune-suppressing drugs. This may help with the symptoms but it will not address the underlying issue and, in fact, may make it even worse. Many of these medications come with heavy risk of side effects and serious health problems. Pets suffering from gut or immune system issues are dealing with a high amount of stress which leads to a lack of resources needed for healthy function.  Many pet owners fall into a vicious cycle of switching from one food to another or loading their pet with antibiotics, steroids and antihistamines to help alleviate the problem.

Bacterial and Fungal Infections

Bacterial and fungal infections are fairly simple, right? Get rid of the fungus or bacteria and the problem goes away.... Not quite so easy.  Often, pets suffer from a vicious cycle of chronic infections in their ears, paws, and other areas in their body.  The overgrowth is often treated with antibiotic or anti-fungal medication, the infection goes away only to return with a vengeance!  In order to avoid this cycle, it is necessary to address the underlying cause of the infections. Our pet’s bodies naturally have a balance of good and bad bacteria and fungus on their skin and in their digestive tract. When this balance is disrupted, the bad or “opportunistic” bacteria or fungus begins to thrive and overrun the good bacteria. The solution is to return the gut back to health:

  1. Start your pet on a good quality probiotic and fermented foods to restore their balance of good bacterium.
  2. Switch your pet to a good quality grain free diet (preferably fresh, raw foods). Grains and other sugars in commercial kibble feed the opportunistic bacteria and change the pH balance in the digestive tract, creating an optimal environment for these bad bacteria and fungus to thrive.
  3. You can also feed coconut oil, which has natural antibacterial and antifungal properties to help curb the bacteria overgrowth.
  4. Seek advice from a holistic veterinarian if you need some extra help.