Supporting your pet with a food allergy can present certain challenges, but staring down the barrel of a reaction to a common protein like chicken can feel especially daunting. Fortunately, a chicken allergy doesn’t need to be a burden on your pet’s health journey. With a little bit of detective work and some new proteins, your dog or cat can be back on track to living their best, healthiest life!
But before we get into some of the best supplements and alternatives to a chicken-free diet, let’s review what exactly food allergies are and how they might look if they crop up.
What are Food Allergies in Pets?
Plainly put, an allergy is an immune system response. In food allergies, the immune system misdiagnoses an ordinary food substance, treats it as a foreign invader, and launches an attack using histamines and other combative chemicals. Allergies tend to develop over time and have various symptoms, which we’ll review in a minute.
On the other hand, food intolerances present themselves very similarly to true allergies despite having a different mechanical cause. Rather than the immune system responding, intolerances can be caused or created by several things, including but not limited to: your pet having a GI disease—such as IBS/IBD—your pet’s body rejecting or being sensitive to certain additives in a food, such as colours, artificial flavouring, toxic processing products, or preservatives. Your pet may even just lack the enzyme required to properly digest a certain food or nutrient. Reactions to intolerances tend to show up almost immediately after consuming the offending item and may present themselves with similar or identical symptoms as allergies. However, they should never result in anaphylaxis.
While this distinction may seem subtle, it’s important to note. Less than 1% of dogs and cats are diagnosed with true food allergies when experiencing any disease, and less than 5% of dogs and cats are diagnosed with food allergies when they have symptoms of skin diseases. That said, chicken is one of the more common food allergies for dogs and cats, so if you’re facing this issue, know that you’re not alone and there are a ton of resources to help you get your pet back to peak health.
Signs and Symptoms of Food Allergies
Your pet may display only one or more of these symptoms, and it’s best to catch them early—not only will you save your pet some discomfort, but the quicker you catch the issue, the easier it will be to resolve.
If you’re wondering how you’ll know what’s “normal” for your pet, the answer is easy: check them when they’re healthy! While some of these symptoms will be easy to spot, start making a habit (if you haven’t already) of checking your pet’s ears and paws every week or so to see if you can spot any irregularities. With regular inspections, you’ll develop a touchstone for what looks, feels, and smells (yes, you’re going to be doing some sniffing) normal for your pet.
Here’s Where to Look:
Face: If you have allergies yourself, you know that sometimes you can’t resist rubbing your face, and your pet may feel the same! They may be scratching their face to the point of making them raw. Look for reddened skin and hair loss around the eyes, chin, and muzzle.
Ears: Persistent ear infections are a fairly reliable sign of food allergies; look for discharge or a distinct, funky smell, and pay attention to excessive itching of the ears. About 25% of dogs with food allergies will only present symptoms through ear infections. This can include having only one ear affected!
Skin/Coat: Just like with your face, sometimes allergies make you feel like you need to scratch all over! Itchy, swollen skin (which may or may not develop into hives) is a reliable sign that something is up with your pet. Non-seasonal itchy skin can be used to differentiate between food allergies and environmental allergies. This will often be accompanied by bacterial infections, hot spots, areas of hair loss, and various skin lesions. The skin may feel dry, flaky, crusty, or greasy with a bad odour.
Paws: The paws may give off a strong odour and be red swollen and moist from licking and chewing. This is also a reasonably frequent sign of allergies, so training your pet—particularly cats—to be comfortable with their paws being handled can make this checkup easier in the long run.
Other signs may include vomiting and diarrhea, which may occur alongside skin reactions. These symptoms only appear in about 20% of food allergy cases but often present with food intolerances.
Is Chicken Really the Problem? Elimination Diets
Before you throw out all your chicken meals, it’s time to visit the vet first and foremost because it’s always best to consult a veterinary professional before dramatically altering your pet’s diet, but also because you don’t want to miss out on any potential alternate causes of your pet’s allergy woes.
An elimination trial diet is simple in concept but can be fiendishly difficult to accomplish correctly. First, you’ll make a list of absolutely everything your pet has ever eaten. Yes, everything! From treats to table scraps to different pet brands and proteins, compile a list of your pet’s dining history. Then, under the supervision of your vet, you’ll start feeding your dog or cat something they’ve never had before for anywhere between 6–12 weeks. Venison, wild boar, and kangaroo are some excellent, novel protein options. You will feed your pet this protein only this protein and ABSOLUTELY nothing else during your food trial, otherwise, your results will be unreliable. You’ll visit your vet about every 2–4 weeks because, while you might start seeing some gradual changes, it’s always great to have an educated, impartial viewer. Finally, once your pet’s symptoms have subsided, you’ll return them to their chicken diet. If the symptoms pop up again, you know the chicken was causing it.
Substitutes and Supplements for Chicken Allergies
So you’ve seen the symptoms, you’ve gone to the vet, and you’ve done your elimination trial diet, and now you’re faced with the harsh reality: it’s a chicken allergy. Now what?
Obviously, your first step will be removing any and all chicken from your pet’s diet. You'll have to read labels carefully, many products that have another protein as a base use chicken fat or chicken meal products, or unspecified fat so bonemeals, so you will need to steer clear of these The next step will be making sure you’re still meeting your pet’s nutritional requirements on their new, chicken-free diet. Here are some tips:
Turkey: We believe that part of a healthy diet comes from rotating through red meats and poultry, so if you’re cutting out chicken from your pet’s diet, consider giving turkey meals a go. That being said, some pets who develop allergies to chicken might also face issues with turkey, so keep an eye out for returning symptoms.
Bones: Bones are an essential part of any healthy raw diet, but you’ll only find ground bones in RDBK poultry meals. We do have a small amount of bone powder in some of our red meats as well, but it’s not at the level you would get feeding our poultry. If you’re cutting out chicken AND turkey from your pet’s meal rotation, then raw non-poultry bones will be a great addition to your pet’s diet 2–3 times a week. You can also look into adding a food-grade bonemeal product if your pet cannot eat or tolerate whole bones! 3P Naturals makes a great steamed lamb bonemeal that makes an easy addition to a boneless raw meal.
Eggs: As wild as it might seem, chicken eggs have a different protein than chicken meat! Fresh, free-range eggs are an excellent topper to just about any of your pet’s meals for an extra boost of protein and iron, as well as vitamins A, D, E, and B-12! Plus you can save and dry out those shells to make a calcium rich eggshell powder to add to those red meat meals!
Making your own eggshell powder is an easy and inexpensive way to boost your pet’s bowl! Click here for a blog on 4 Essential Supplements for a Raw Diet and find our eggshell powder recipe under “Calcium and Phosphorus”
Seaweed Mineral supplements: these supplements are a great alternative for those pets that may not be able to tolerate a lot of bone in their diets. These superfoods can be high in calcium, and other minerals for added nutrients, but be sure to read the labels carefully, as not all supplements are created equally. Additionally, any supplement that comes from the sea should be scrutinized carefully for it’s iodine content. While dogs tend to tolerate these well, it may be a no-no for senior cats with altered thyroid function, and a hard no for cats with diagnosed thyroid disease.
Duck: While we generally consider duck to be quite a fatty poultry, most of that fat is between the skin and meat, not within the meat itself. In fact, duck has less saturated fat than chicken! We’re fans of the 3P Naturals duck formula for dogs and 3P Basic Instincts duck formula for cats.
Rabbit: Another novel protein, rabbit is white meat with less cholesterol than red meats but still packed with lean protein. It also contains high levels of essential amino acids and vitamin B12, and is often made with whole rabbit providing those much needed bones! Again, we recommend 3P’s Naturals rabbit formula for dogs and the 3P Basic Instinct rabbit formula for cats.
Probiotics: Since allergies are an immune system response, keeping up your pet’s immune system health is important—and this starts in the gut! A healthy regimen and rotation of probiotics can keep your pet’s health from falling into disarray and creating opportunities for allergies to develop. Here’s a blog covering some natural probiotic sources as well as manufactured ones that are easy to add to your dog or cat’s meals to help them keep their gut flora healthy and happy!
Finding Variety in a Chicken-Free Diet
Once you understand that allergies can develop after prolonged exposure to one food, you’ll start to see the importance of rotating your pet’s protein options as much as they tolerate. While it might be tempting to stick with the first protein you find that works after ditching the chicken, you might be setting yourself up for more dietary complications in the future. So while you should keep what works, don’t be afraid to start incorporating different proteins and rotate through them—not only will it help keep them healthy, it’ll keep their meals interesting!