By Inna Shekhtman
Allergies and food sensitivities seem to be on the rise in both human and pets and are likely one of the most common reasons for vet visits. According to recent estimates, up to half of all dogs in North America may be affected by allergies. Common treatments involved switching to a prescription hypoallergenic diet, shampoos containing antifungal medications, antibiotics, antihistamines or steroids. While these can help resolve the immediate symptoms, the relief is often temporary and symptoms return with a vengeance, resulting in a cycle of health issues.
The challenge of treating allergies really hit close to home for me last year when I started doing some research for a friend of mine and her pup. Her dog, Tanner, a four year old lab cross had suffered from chronic infections and allergies most of his life. She had switched foods at least five times and tried several prescriptions and shampoos and was getting frustrated with Tanner’s lack of improvement. I would like to share what we discovered in trying to unravel the causes for Tanner’s suffering and what was done to set him on a path to healing.
Common Symptoms Associated with Allergies:
-Itchy, red and dry skin
-Licking and biting
-Itchy ear and skin infections
-Bloating and diarrhea
What is an allergy?
An allergy is the immune system reacting to something it perceives as a threat. This substance is called an allergen, and it causes the immune system to release a chemical called histamine to fight the perceived invader. Histamines can also cause inflammation, irritation of skin and digestive issues; giving external representation of the internal battle. Dogs and cats are not born with allergies – they develop over time. Usually it’s because the immune system is overstressed and lacks resources, so it starts overreacting to substances that it would normally consider harmless. If your pet is developing allergies, it is often a symptom of a deeper imbalance often caused by a combination of diet, stress, conventional medical treatments, heredity, and environmental factors.
Important things to know about allergies:
- Allergic reactions usually occur immediately or shortly after exposure to an allergen.
- A severe reaction is triggered by any amount of allergen – small or large.
- Common allergens include: Tree, grass, weed pollens, mold, dust, smoke, fleas, perfumes, household cleaning products, shampoos, fabrics, other household materials, food and prescription medications
- True food allergies are very rare and account for less than 10% of allergies seen in dogs and cats. Yet it is usually the first thing gets targeted when a reaction occurs.
What is food intolerance?
Food intolerance is an irritation of the digestive system when it encounters difficulties with digesting a certain food. There are several underlying causes for food intolerances. One possibility is that your pet lacks the enzymes to digest a specific food. A more common reason is that the gut is unhealthy and is not optimally processing the foods that your pet is consuming. For example, if the food is causing inflammation in the digestive tract, it could drastically alter the permeability of the gut (its ability to absorb nutrients and prevent unwanted substances from entering the body).
Important things to know about food intolerances:
- The immune system is not involved.
- The intolerance will build up with exposure and increase in severity over time.
- Small amounts of the food can still be tolerated.
- Often misdiagnosed as allergies. Most reactions to food are because of food intolerances, not allergies!
Tanner’s case, he had a combination of both allergies and food intolerances. He had an allergy to certain pollens. He had also been given antibiotics on several occasions during the past year and likely had a imbalance of bacteria in his gut that caused both inflammation and made him more susceptible to yeast infections.
Roadmap to Health begins in the Gut
Dogs and cats don’t develop allergies because they are exposed to allergens. And they don’t become sensitive or allergic to food because they are exposed to food. To stop the cycle it is important to identify and treat the underlying cause of the immune or digestive health problem, not just the external symptoms.
The first step is to make sure that your pet is as comfortable as possible. Try and identify the substance causing the reaction and either eliminate or reduce your pet’s exposure to this as much as possible. If your pet is allergic to something that’s unavoidable, like pollen or grass, an antihistamine like Benedryl can often help alleviate the symptoms and make your pet more comfortable. There are also more natural options, like coconut oil, that can help relieve itchy skin.
But now the real work begins to find the underlying cause. Most of the time, we start this process with the gut. For allergies, much of the immune function actually begins in the gut, so it makes sense to look there first.
The digestive tract has three main functions: digestion, absorption, and prevention of toxins and other unwanted substances from entering the body. It is the first filter of the immune system. This is possible because your digestive tract contains a host of bacteria called “probiotics”, that help with digesting food, production of vitamins, breaking down toxins and acting as a filter for what is allowed to move into your bloodstream. In a healthy gut there is a constant balance of good and bad bacteria that fulfill this vital function.
If there is an imbalance in the intestine, bacteria can seriously compromise your pet’s health and affect not just their digestion, but their immune system, organ functions and every other system in their body. It can also frequently lead to a condition called leaky gut syndrome that creates a vicious cycle. Leaky gut syndrome is exactly what it sounds – a condition in which damage to the wall of the small intestine (caused by something – usually diet related) creates spaces between the cells in the intestinal lining that allow fragments of partially digested food, toxins, and bacteria to enter the bloodstream. This leads to impaired digestion, incomplete absorption of nutrients, and often overwhelms the body’s filters (liver and kidney) and immune system, causing further damage and inflammation.
Common causes for this imbalance and damage to the intestinal wall are:
- Anti-biotics: Anti-biotics (Latin for “against-life”)destroy all bacteria – healthy and unhealthy. If the good bacteria are not replenished by taking a Probiotic supplement immediately after the dose of anti-biotics is complete, it increases the risk of bad bacteria overrunning the digestive tract.
- Diet: What you feed your pet can dramatically alter the balance of the good bacteria in their gut. A good quality diet feeds the good bacteria and provides the resources for them to thrive. Diets that are high in carbohydrates and sugars feed, and can cause an overgrowth of, the bad bacteria and damage the intestinal walls. Raw is the most natural diet for dogs and cats to eat. If you cannot feed raw, then a good quality grain-free canned food will help maintain a healthy gut as well. For more information on raw diets, check out the Red Dog Deli Handbook for a Healthier Pet (free in select retail stores).
- Deworming Medications and Steroids: All of these can throw your pet’s gut bacteria into chaos. Try to minimize the use of these to only one when absolutely necessary and give your pet a probiotic to help re-builda balanced gut flora. A great alternative to chemical deworming medication is coconut meat.
Mending the Fence
Think of your pet’s small intestine and the layer of good bacteria as a fence that protects them from the outside world (toxins, viruses, parasites, etc.). The bacteria in the intestine act as the bodyguards, selecting who is allowed to enter through the fence’s gate. If these bodyguards are constantly under attack (overrun by bad bacteria) and hungry (insufficient good fiber in diet) they will miss some bad guys and get into more fights (food intolerance). When this fence breaks down or the bouncers go on strike, the internal guards (immune system) get overwhelmed. If these guards are also working overtime and skipped their dinner (don’t get enough nutrients from diet to be in optimal health), they will likely get extra grumpy and start fighting with everyone – good and bad. Even the mail courier ends up on the “bad guy” list (allergy).
To bring our pets back to health, we need to repair the “fence” and give the bouncers and guards the resources to do their job:
- Start your pet on a good quality probiotic –Preferably a live culture.
- Switch your pet to a food that is as minimally processed as possible – Preferably a good quality grain-free canned food with a novelty protein. (A protein that your pet has not been exposed to yet). If possible, switch to raw. Grains and other sugars in commercial kibble foods help to feed the opportunistic bacteria and change the pH balance in the digestive tract, creating an optimal environment for these bad bacteria to thrive. Raw ingredients are also easier to digest, putting less stress on the digestive system.
- Add some good quality fiber or a prebiotic to your pet’s diet to support the good bacteria in the gut. A new Australian recent study for humans found that increasing the consumption of good quality fiber helped reduce occurrences of allergies and reduced inflammatory.
- If your pet is stressed for other reasons, look for ways to reduce their stress level. For example, they may be stressed because of a change in routine. Trying to create a stable routine, giving them a bit more attention and more frequent walks could help.
For Tanner, after introducing him to liquid probiotics and a raw diet, his itchiness and skin inflammations slowly decreased. His gut began to heal. His diet now consists of a rotation of 5 raw proteins. In time chicken was reintroduced into his diet – he was allergic to it in the dry food, but was able to eat raw chicken without any issues. His pollen allergies have not gone away, but now his immune system has a lot more support so the reaction is significantly less severe.
One last thought …
Healing takes time! It took time for your pet to develop these health issues – they didn’t just pop up overnight. It will take time for their systems to balance out. The process of helping your pet return to health will likely involve some trial and error and other natural methods of healing, depending on the severity of their condition. Start by working closely with a holistic vet that is supportive of natural healing and modalities.