The Food Allergy Dilemma

Have you walked down the food aisles in the pet store lately? Does your head spin? Grain-free. No by-products. Chicken, beef, turkey, venison, salmon, or lamb. How do you know what to feed your pet anymore?

In 2003, Blue Buffalo was founded, a line of foods for pets who seemed to have food allergies. Previously, Iams was selling their popular Lamb & Rice food for sensitive skin.

The concept of food allergies in pets has exploded in the last several years. But how many pets really need these types of specialized diets? According to Hill’s Science Diet, an established company trusted by veterinarians worldwide, only 10% of dogs actually have food allergies. And only 15% of those dogs were found to be allergic to chicken, a protein source which the pet food industry has demonized as the cause of many issues.

So what are common issues you may see if your dog has food allergies? A classic symptom is chronic ear infections. Another sign can be unresolved gastrointestinal troubles.

The question comes to your mind: do dogs really need this many choices in food? How the blazes am I supposed to choose one?

Ask your veterinarian first. Yes, they often have prescription foods sold in their office, but don’t presume they do that to pad their profits. An ethical veterinarian will discuss if they think your dog needs a specialized food for a specific medical condition, or if an over-the-counter food might work for them. There are SO MANY foods out there now, it is nearly impossible to know them all. But your vet will know the good brands to point you towards, and the ones to steer you away from.

The very popular Blue Buffalo has come under fire in the last few years for some serious concerns. The company was successfully sued by Purina foods for false labeling. Blue Buffalo labels claimed their foods had no poultry by-product meal, and this was one of their big selling points. (Personally, I think they were capitalizing on the “ick factor,” showing consumers what by-products consist of: internal organs, feet, beaks, rectums and other body parts.) It was later shown this was false advertising, and their foods do indeed contain by-products.

The truth is, these by-products are often rich in nutrients. You know all those nature videos of predators chasing down prey? What is the first thing lions rip into, muscle and bone? No, they go straight to the belly, consuming the internal organs first. The intestines are especially nutritious, containing nutrients from the grasses the prey animal grazes on. That’s right: carnivores need grains too. They instinctively know what to eat first.

So are all the grain-free food fads being thrown at pet owners from every direction completely profit-driven? The best group to answer those questions are the veterinary dermatologists. More research is being done every day on the grain-free controversy.

“So what am I supposed to do? Switch my dog’s food? I’m going to the store now!”

Hold on, you don’t want to switch your dog’s diet on the basis of one article. If you truly think your dog has allergies, discuss diagnosing it with your vet. Yes, tests are expensive. But so is constant treatment of allergy symptoms, often year-round, and those treatments often include steroids, the long-term use of which can have serious health consequences for your pet. And just treating the symptoms won’t help your pet in the long run. Don’t you want to identify and treat the cause?

Allergy blood testing is not useful for foods, as any protein the pet has recently consumed can result in a false positive. However, this method is definitely useful in determining environmental allergies. Then treatment can begin along those lines.

Food trials are very useful in eliminating actual food allergies, when done under your veterinarian’s guidance. The recommended method is a 12-week period of exclusively feeding the chosen diet. You can’t feed any other foods, including treats, during this period, or you will waste your money and your time, and be back at square one. And most importantly, your pet won’t get the relief you are trying to give it.

The upshot is, don’t believe everything the pet food companies tell you. They are not the scientists. They are business people. If what you are feeding your dog right now seems to agree with them, meaning they are healthy and symptom-free, there is no reason to change it without professional recommendation. If your pet does have health issues, and you have questions about its diet, consult your veterinary team. The pet store employees may mean well, but they are not educated in pet health, meaning medicine. And sometimes, food IS medicine.

For more detailed information, see The American College of Veterinary Dermatology at

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