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Allergies in Pets

leia1Do your pets have trouble with itchy skin? Ever noticed your dog chewing at his feet? How about infected ears or inflamed skin, or even diarrhea? These can all be manifestations of allergies in dogs and cats. Allergies in pets are a common problem, and it can be complicated and frustrating to figure out what works. The very first tool you need to fix your pet’s allergies is a good understanding of the problem. Let’s begin…

Food or Environment?

There are two main categories of allergies. An animal (or person) may be allergic to food, or to environmental factors such as pollen, dust mites, or mold. Certainly they may be allergic to items from both categories, but we are often able to narrow it down to just one. In the northeast, among dogs with clinical signs of allergies, about 85% have environmental allergies and only 15% have food allergies. Food allergies are much more common in cats at about 40-50%.

Diagnosing & Treating Food Allergies

Determining if an animal has a food allergy is more complicated than many owners expect. “But I changed his diet, it didn’t help!” many owners exclaim. If you changed the brand of food but both types included chicken as an ingredient, and your dog happens to be allergic to chicken, of course it didn’t help. You’d have no way of knowing that chicken was the problem food, either! The way to find out which ingredients are the problem is by doing a food trial. While blood tests for allergies exist, the blood test results for food allergies are generally not very accurate. Demonstrating that a specific ingredient is a problem by excluding it from the diet and looking for an improvement in allergy symptoms. If the food is then reintroduced, symptoms will return.

Food allergies are to a specific protein ingredient in the food: chicken, beef, lamb, fish, egg, whey, rice, soy, wheat, corn, barley, etc. (notice it is not just the grains we are blaming!). No need to worry about the vitamin and mineral supplements (with names like “calcium iodate” or “niacin”) that also appear on the ingredient list – they are not at fault.

Here are the steps to follow for a successful food trial with results that can be trusted:puppy1

1. Find a new diet that does not include ANY of the same major ingredients as what you are currently feeding, or have fed in the past. This requires you to read the whole ingredient list on the back of the bags, not just the description of the diet on the front of the bag (a diet called “Lamb and Rice Sensitive Skin” surely includes many more ingredients than just lamb and rice). You may be able to find a kibble that works, or you may have an easier time preparing a home-cooked limited ingredient diet. This can get complicated, we know, and we don’t expect you to figure it out on your own. If you’re uncertain of how to proceed, don’t guess – talk to your veterinarian.

2. Eliminate any other foods you are currently feeding, as these may also contain the allergen at fault. This means NO TREATS, NO TABLE FOOD, no rawhides or marrow bones, and no flavored medications (such as Heartgard or Rimadyl). “No treats!? But Barkley will be so sad!!” Barkley will also be sad if we don’t get his allergies under control… But fortunately, if you follow the same rules for choosing a new diet, you can find an appropriate treat to offer. For example, if Barley’s previous diet did not include duck as an ingredient, you can safely use a freeze-dried duck liver treat. If he has never had carrots before, you can offer this as a treat. Several of the limited-ingredient diets aimed at allergy management also make a treat to “match” the diet, so this may be an option as well. And for the flavored medications that must be excluded, your veterinarian can help you find safe alternatives to use during the food trial.

3. Continue this new limited-ingredient diet for 8 weeks, and watch for an improvement. If you do not see an improvement and are certain you did everything right, the problem is not a food allergy. It’s as simple as that.

4. Continue the limited-ingredient diet, or try adding in other ingredients one at a time and watch for a reaction. You can continue the limited-ingredient diet forever if it is practical to do. If you are using a home-cooked diet, though, you will need to make sure it is nutritionally complete before we decide to continue it forever – your veterinarian may suggest you contact a university nutrition service to get it exactly right.

lavender2Diagnosing & Treating Environmental Allergies

When symptoms vary by season, environmental allergies are more likely at fault. Sometimes it is important to determine exactly what in a pet’s environment they are allergic to, while at other times it is not going to change the treatment chosen. For example, you can potentially control allergies to any sort of pollen or mold just by giving a daily antihistamine. On the other hand, if the dog’s allergies are caused by flea bites, the fleas must be found and eliminated to solve the problem. Here are the general steps we take to treat environmental allergies WITHOUT a specific diagnosis.

1. Remove the allergen, if possible. Check for fleas, and if found, get rid of them for good. Is pollen the problem? Giving your pet a bath regularly (perhaps weekly) during allergy season will physically remove it from their fur. Any shampoo will clean away allergens, but your pet may benefit even more from a medicated shampoo that also treats yeast or bacteria causing irritation to the skin.

2. Address any infection of the skin that has developed as a result of allergies. Ear infections and skin that has developed “hot spots” or has become raw, inflamed, and infected from scratching need to be addressed, usually with an oral antibiotic and a steroid. It is ideal to avoid using a steroid long-term, but your pet may need to rely on one for a brief period of time to reduce severe inflammation.

3. Try giving a daily antihistamine and/or fish oil supplement. Antihistamines work best when they are given daily as a PREVENTATIVE, rather than as a response to an allergy flare-up. Allergy medications sold for human use (such as Benadryl or Zyrtec) are generally safe for pets, but please talk to your vet about the most effective types and appropriate dose for your pet. Some can be given once daily, others require higher or more frequent doses for pets than people. NEVER give an antihistamine that also contains a decongestant or anti-inflammatory ingredient to your pet. Generics, however, are less expensive and no less effective than the corresponding brand name drug. Fish oil has the potential to reduce inflammation and moisturize the skin, but remember, if fish is on your pet’s list of foods to avoid, a fish oil supplement is not an option.

4. Consider an immune-modulating medication. In some cases, allergies are so problematic for an animal that your vet must consider a drug using a drug that alters how the immune system works. Granted, the immune system is important to prevent infectious disease and we’d rather not mess with it! Fortunately, newer drugs are better targeted to controlling allergies while leaving other aspects of immune function nearer to normal. Your vet may discuss these types of drugs with you if the need arises.

5. Consider allergy testing and immunotherapy (allergy shots). This is the most advanced and most specific tool we have against allergies in pets. It gives us the opportunity to “re-teach” the immune system to ignore allergens while leaving its disease-fighting function completely intact. Remember, allergy testing is useful against environmental allergies, NOT food allergies. We hope you’ll consider this approach as your best option for a pet with severe environmental allergies that cannot be adequately controlled by antihistamines or reducing allergen exposure.

Allergies in pets are a complex problem, and regardless of the cause, it can take some persistence to find the best solution. This article is meant to set you off on the right path, and your veterinarian is ready to guide you along the way.

Allergies in Pets – View/Print as PDF

Feline Nutrition: The “Carnivore Connection”

Have you ever considered the differences between dog food and cat food? Or the differences between what our pet’s ancestors would have eaten, and what we feed them today? There is no species to whom this matters more than our feline friends. Both dogs and cats prefer to eat predominantly meat, but a cat’s physiology is quite different than a dog’s. Cats are considered “obligate carnivores,” meaning they would rely almost exclusively on eating prey, not plants, in their evolutionary setting. Dogs, by contrast, are more omnivorous, and can more readily use both plant and animals sources of nutrition. Cats’ evolutionary past sets them apart in a variety of ways, and this has important consequences for what we should feed them today.

What Wild Cats Eat and Why It Matters

brianacat11A wild cat’s prey would be predominantly rodents and small birds. These are food sources high in protein, with moderate levels of fat, and very little carbohydrates. Cats require two to three times more protein than omnivores, and a kitten’s requirement is even higher. Protein and fat are used as a source of energy, to synthesize new proteins, rebuild cells, and carry out all of a cat’s normal biochemical functions. If a dog is fed a diet low in animal protein, it isn’t a critical problem; dogs, humans, and other omnivorous species can synthesize the proteins they need from plant sources and their metabolism can adapt to what is available. Cats are not able to do this, and illness will result from a severe or long-standing deficiency. It isn’t just the lack of protein that presents a problem; an overabundance of carbohydrates may contribute to obesity, diabetes, osteoarthritis, urinary tract disease, liver disease, and skin conditions.

Cats’ unique nutritional needs do not end with protein. They also have a greater need for a variety of B vitamins, as well as vitamins A and D. Healthy cats rarely run into trouble with this, but a deficiency can develop quickly if a cat stops eating.

Prey is also a major source of water for wild carnivores. Cats are evolutionarily a desert species, and as a result they do not readily feel thirsty when they are becoming dehydrated. Research has demonstrated that a cat eating kibble takes in 50% less water in the course of a day than a cat who eats canned food. Cats eating predominantly kibble may spend a significant portion of their lives dehydrated, constantly putting a strain on their kidneys.

So, What Should We Feed?

Pet food companies might have you believe that a “grain-free” diet is a “carb-free” diet. This is not the case. Carbohydrates are still present in all kibble diets, and in many canned diets too. A carbohydrate is necessary to form a kibble (think about it – trying to make kibble without a carbohydrate source is like trying to make pancakes with only eggs, milk, and oil). So how does the pet food manufacturer manage this? An alternate carbohydrate source such as potato flour will be used. It’s not a grain, but it’s still a carbohydrate! So we acknowledge that a carbohydrate source will ALWAYS appear somewhere on a dry food ingredient list, but a canned diet can be made truly carb-free.

zoey2Will your cat eat canned food? If so, great, even if you find it convenient to still offer kibble at another meal. You can mix additional water in with her canned food to make it “soupy” and increase her water intake further. Look on the ingredient list for animal-sourced proteins as the first few ingredients: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, whey, etc. Do you see something like “poultry by-product” on the label? Fear not – it may not be the wrong choice. “By-product” earned its unpalatable-sounding name because it consists of parts of animals not typically used as human food, such as organ meat (liver, kidney, etc), fat tissue, bone, and viscera. Organ meat in particular represents a rich nutrient source, and the small particle size of a finely-ground meal aids in digestion. Do plant sourced ingredients (such as rice, soy protein, wheat gluten, corn starch) feature prominently on a canned food label? They do not need to be there. The lower they are on the ingredient list, the better.

Does your cat prefer kibble? While it can be more challenging to meet a cat’s nutritional and water needs via a kibble-only diet, there is evidence that a dry food contributes less to dental disease than canned food. We can choose a variety of dry food that most closely matches the needs of an obligate carnivore by selecting one that lists animal-sourced proteins as the first two or three ingredients. Encourage your cat to drink plenty of water by providing multiple water bowls in different locations around the house.

mg24The array of pet foods available may seem endless, and there is no single best food to suit every cat. Food allergies, taste preferences, and lifestyles all come into play. If this article leaves you still wondering exactly what to feed your cat, we hope you will talk to your veterinarian about it at your next appointment. You might also be interested in reading further in our blog: we have also written an article called “What Should I Feed My Pet?

Feline Nutrition – View/Print as PDF

 

References and Further Reading:

The information in this article is based upon “The Carnivore Connection to Nutrition in Cats,” by Debra L Zoran, DVM, PhD, DACVIM. The original full-text article appeared in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol 221, No. 11, on December 1, 2002, and can also be found at http://www.catinfo.org/docs/DrZoran.pdf.

There is a great deal of additional information at Dr. Zoran’s website, www.catinfo.org.