Devoted to More Wags and Purrs.


The Worsening Frustration of Food Allergies


One cause of scratching in our dogs and cats is an allergy to something they are eating. While food allergies are not rare, they are also not the majority cause of itchiness in our pets. Many pets itch because of allergies to parasites, pollens, items in their house, other pets, people, or from various bacterial or yeast skin infections. Once these other possibilities have been eliminated though, we are stuck with looking at what they are eating.


Food allergies are especially frustrating because pets that are allergic are usually allergic to a type of protein from a meat or a grain, rather than a preservative or additive. Cats that are allergic to chicken, for example, cannot eat any chicken, no matter what the brand, whether or not it is organic, or whether it is from a can of cat food, a treat, or off your own dinner plate. Just like a person who is allergic to peanuts cannot eat all organic peanuts, they have to eat no peanuts at all. While pet food manufactures would have you believe that grains are always the source of food allergies, they are not the majority. More commonly, one type of meat is the culprit.


Figuring out which type of meat to avoid can be challenging.  There is no consensus among veterinary dermatologists about an accurate “food allergy test”, which leaves many pet owners to try dietary trials.  A dietary trial occurs when certain foods are avoided, for several months, and we see if the itchiness stops. Years ago, “lamb and rice” formulas were developed to help those people trying to avoid beef, chicken, wheat or corn. Unfortunately, people started hearing that lamb and rice was good for your pet's skin, and they became very popular. Pet food manufactures responded by making many lamb and rice formulas, and now pet store shelves are stacked with new and different ingredients, such as salmon and sweet potato or turkey and barley.


For years veterinarians have known to look further than the name on the front of the bag. Buying the salmon and sweet potato formula so you can avoid chicken and corn sounds like a great idea, until you read the ingredient list and see that while it contains salmon, it also contains chicken. Often times, tricky pet food manufactures will list names and pictures of foods on the front on the bag, only to have them be the last ingredients listed, and therefor only present in microscopic amounts in the food.


Chapman University's Food Science Program recently threw a bigger pet curve ball at pet owners when they showed that more than 38% of pet foods contained ingredients, sometimes in large quantities, that were not listed anywhere on the label. Some of this can be blamed on manufacturing. If the pet food manufacturer (who is often not the company on the label) is making a cat food made with chicken and rice, and then switches to making a fish and pea formula, they often do not clean their machinery well between runs.  This causes the fish food to contain chicken, and your chicken-allergic cat to continue itching while eating the fish formula. While the “prescription” foods tested did not have this contamination, they are only available through veterinary hospitals, making them more difficult to get. The one positive outcome of the Chapman University study was that no foods contained horse meat, zoo animals or dog and cats, as is sometimes rumored.


Even worse, the FDA allows pet food manufactures to change their ingredients without changing the pet food label for up to 6 months. So pet owners are trying to read tiny print on their dog and cat foods, which may not reflect what is in the bag or can anyway.


Food allergies have always been frustrating, and now are even more so. Pet owners need to demand that the FDA buckle down on pet food manufactures. Not being able to trust a label is simply unacceptable.


Dr. Michael Rumore, Lake Seminole Animal Hospital