Allergies & Nutrition
Dogs can suffer from both food and environmental allergies, typically characterized by chronic ear infections, itchy and stained paws, hot spots, red staining on the face or belly, an itchy body, and gastric upset. First and foremost, it’s important that your vet confirms that your dog’s chronic issues do stem from allergies, and not another, potentially more threatening health issue. When everything else is ruled out, managing allergies can be challenging, but not impossible. While environmental allergies can be difficult to avoid, food allergies can be dealt with easily by eliminating the food that the dog is having a reaction to. Pervasive allergic responses can also result in your dog developing allergies to other things; an allergy prompts an immune response, and when the immune system is constantly reacting to something, it can sometimes start to react to things it never did in the past, so food allergies can lead to environmental allergies, and vice versa.
Addressing a food allergy is best done through an elimination diet. Until recently, allergy testing was unreliable and costly, often resulting in frustration for the owner when results were inconclusive. Dr. Jean Dodds, the world’s leading researcher on thyroid function, nutrigenomics, and now allergies, has developed a wonderfully easy and comprehensive testing system, providing a lengthy list of foods that your dog may or may not be allergic to. By visiting her site, nutriscan.org, you can complete the online application, pay the fee ($285), and they’ll send you a simple kit to collect saliva from your dog which you’ll send back, followed by the test results within a few short weeks. So far, next to elimination diets, this has been the most reliable test for food allergies. For many, though, the cost can be prohibitive. An elimination diet is more economical as the only associated costs are the foods you choose to use, and for many, it is still the only real way to know what your dog can tolerate. We begin this process by simplifying the diet as much as possible, usually with only one protein and one carb, and then build the diet from there (for kibble feeders, the best kibble for this is the series of Limited Ingredient diets from Natural Balance, or for commercial raw feeders, a new veterinary line of whole food, lightly processed food called Rayne is also available). The most common mistake we make in elimination diets is time. An allergy can stay in the body for up to 12 weeks and when we’re making changes after just a couple of days or weeks, we may not be seeing the true results of the food test. For example, if your dog is allergic to chicken and you switch to a salmon based diet, you’ll need to stay on the salmon diet (unless of course the condition worsens) for 12 weeks before you’ll know if your dog is reacting to something in the new diet. Once you’ve passed the 12 week point and your dog is showing improvements, begin adding one new ingredient (even if in the form of a topper or a treat) every two weeks, provided there are no additional allergic reactions. Remember though, if you add a food that causes a reaction, you’ll be back into that 12 week cycle. The idea being that eventually, you’ll have built a list of foods that your dog tolerates well so that you can expand their diet options. Be sure that everyone who has access to your dog understands his strict diet limitations as one little tidbit fed from a friend can result in 12 weeks of waiting! Also be cautious of treats (staying within your approved ingredient list) and access to other dogs’ food in multi-dog households.
TIP: most dogs will react to a food that they’ve had in abundance throughout their life and, for many, that begins with grains and chicken. A good starting point for those new to elimination diets is to cut out grain (not just gluten-free) and chicken first, and see how your dog improves.
Environmental allergies are typically things like pollen, grasses, trees, and other outdoor stimulants. If you believe your dog has both forms of allergy, keep in mind that an elimination diet can be very challenging to conduct when your dog may also be reacting to pollens. For those of us with dogs who have both types, elimination diets are really only reliable when done during the colder months. For many, medications like Benadryl or steroids seem to be the only option to stave off symptoms of outdoor allergies, and sometimes, they are necessary. While I’m a big fan of using as many holistic options as I can, medications have their place. If despite all your efforts, your dog’s allergy symptoms are causing secondary health issues like chronic loose stool, gastric upset, chewing of their paws or skin to the point of bleeding or even aural hematomas from chronic ear infections, you may need to medicate your dog. Risk of skin infections, pain from self-harm, and even repeated surgery to deal with hematomas are all detrimental to your dog’s health; therefore, often a compromise must be made to weigh the damage from medications versus the damage from these health issues. However, options are available to not only protect your dog’s body from medications, but also to reduce or eliminate the need for them. Milk Thistle is a wonderful supplement to protect the liver as is Turmeric, which can also help to balance the immune system. Fish oil acts to not only promote a healthy coat, but also contains anti-inflammatory properties to help manage allergy response. Probiotics are probably the most important addition to a dog’s diet when dealing with the yeast that develops in an allergy dog and it should be provided in the form of either powder or tablet (yogurt just doesn’t have enough probiotic in it to provide the relief you’re looking for without feeding so much dairy it upsets your dog’s stomach). Probiotic should always have a wide range of bacteria strains, beyond just acidophilus, and well known brands like Omega Alpha or Kazooticals will provide just what your dog needs. Raw, local honey is also a gentle way to desensitize your dog to pollens, and if used long term, can have considerable effects. It should always be raw so that the pollens haven’t been destroyed via pasteurization and should always be local so that your dog is slowly exposed to the pollens from the area where you live. Lastly, topical treatments like Apple Cider Vinegar (always organic, with ‘mother’, never apply to broken skin as it can burn), Colloidal Silver (don’t give internally to a dog on probiotics, as it can counter-act the probiotic), Coconut Oil and Oil of Oregano are all great products for destroying yeast build up, conditioning the skin, and relieving itch.
- Because allergies are the result of the immune system’s over reaction, limiting your dog’s exposure to toxins is a great way of preventing or reducing allergies. If the immune system is always being challenged by toxins, it never has a chance to ‘relax’ and function normally. Consider eliminating scent diffusers and plug-ins in your home, avoid fabric sprays that your dog will walk/lie on and then consume through licking themselves, and switch to natural cleaning products.
- The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) has recently changed its vaccination protocols for core vaccines to once every three years. Do some research on the science available about vaccines and speak to your vet (and perhaps get a second opinion from a holistic vet) about minimal vaccine protocols. The science available to us about canine immunology and vaccinations is far different from that which is available about humans and children, and well worth the investigation on your part.
- Choose high quality supplements. Many ‘for dogs’ supplements are waste product from human production and aren’t required to meet the same standards. Quality companies do exist, like Omega Alpha, Ascenta, Mercola, and Purica, but in many instances, a human product can be used. I like to purchase all my dog’s supplements at health food stores ~ the cost may be slightly higher but the results are considerably different versus grocery or pharmacy/cosmetic store brands, and well worth the investment.
- Keep a journal of what your dog eats, what changes you make, the season, and how your dog is seeming to feel. Working with allergies is a long-term commitment and we can easily forget what works and what doesn’t. Tracking your progress (or lack thereof) can make life much easier and avoid duplication of trial and error.
Written by Erica Garven
Erica is the owner of The Dog’s Assistant and is not only an allergy consultant, but also a behaviour consultant (CPDT-KA). She shares her home with her husband and her rescued Boxer, Toby, in Oakville. You can find more information about her at www.thedogsassistant.ca.