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Food sensitivities and allergies in pets

Is your pet constantly itching and scratching? Do they often lick or gnaw at their paws? While it may not be apparent at first, recurring episodes like these could be a reaction to certain foods.

Like humans, pets can suffer from a number of allergies. From environmental (such as grass or pollen) to parasites (like fleas, ticks and mites) to food (like grains, dairy or beef). And while they may only be exposed to environmental allergens during a specific season, like spring or summer, when your furry friend has discomfort all year round, the culprit may be something in their diet.

So what's the difference between food intolerance/sensitivity and food allergy?

There is a genetic component to both. This is why certain breeds (like Siamese and Westies) are more susceptible to allergies and food sensitivities.

An allergic reaction is an immune response to a substance that the body believes is a threat (usually a protein source). A food intolerance, on the other hand, is an abnormal response to an ingredient which occurs when the body has difficulty processing or digesting specific foods.

While allergies can be severe and life threatening, food sensitivities aren’t usually serious. But as symptoms can be similar for both, it’s important to seek advice from your vet.

What are the signs?

Food intolerances are more common than food allergies. Often, food intolerances manifest in gastrointestinal issues (gas, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation) while allergies often affect the skin. Symptoms include excessive scratching, inflamed skin, ear infections, skin infections, and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting.

An example of a food sensitivity, for instance, is lactose intolerance, which often causes stomach upsets.

What can I do to help my pet?

Always consult with your vet if you suspect your pet has an allergy, intolerance or infection, as it is important to get the right diagnosis.

Fortunately, food intolerance and allergies can be managed, so we can reduce symptoms by identifying (and avoiding) the offending foods. Sometimes, your vet may recommend a hypoallergenic or specialised veterinary diet. Or, in some cases, an elimination diet. This is where potential allergens are removed for weeks until symptoms improve, and are then reintroduced one by one to detect any reactions. The idea is to find the problematic ingredient and remove this permanently. When it’s difficult to detect the allergen, your vet may recommend further testing.

What are hypoallergenic foods?

Hypoallergenic formulas exclude common trigger ingredients like grains, soya, beef and dairy. They often contain a single-source protein, which can help if you know the specific protein your pet is having a reaction to.

Specialised veterinary or prescription foods may also be recommended to help manage food allergies or sensitivities. Some of these diets contain hydrolysed protein, a protein source that has been broken down into small particles so that they’re easy to digest and won’t cause a reaction from the immune system. These diets must only be fed under the recommendation of your vet.

Should all pets avoid common allergens like grains?

Not all cats and dogs need to be restricted from eating grains. But if you have an itchy pet or a pet who has frequent digestive issues, you could try feeding a grain-free diet.

Grains are packed full of nutrients and can be highly digestible, too. The key is in the quantity and quality of the grains in your pet’s food. So while meat should ideally be the first and main ingredient, grains can be beneficial too. Lower quality pet foods tend to be high in grains and cereals and low in meat. They may also contain fillers such as modified cornstarch and soybean meal, which have little nutritional value.

Which products would you recommend?

We stock a range of hypoallergenic brands, and we’ve seen good results from these – but remember to see your vet for a more personalised treatment.

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