Itchiness, hair loss, and other skin issues are some of the most common problems I see in my veterinary practice. And quite frequently, the owners of these pets believe the food is responsible for the problem. In some cases, they may be right. But, there are many different diseases that can affect a pet’s skin. And many of them have nothing to do with the pet’s diet.
Let’s take a look at some of the facts about skin disease and some of the myths that are common as well.
- Feeding a healthy diet is always a good choice for your pet. A well-balanced, high-quality diet is essential to your dog or cat’s overall health and can also help strengthen the immune system. This is true of all pets, regardless of whether skin problems exist for that pet. The benefits of a good diet should never be overlooked.
- Allergies are one of the most common reasons that pets, both dogs and cats, develop skin problems. In our pets, allergies most frequently affect the skin, leading to itchiness, bald spots, and “hot spots”. However, not all allergies are related to food. In fact, fleas are one of the most common allergies, if not THE most common allergy, seen in both dogs and cats. Environmental allergies are also a common cause. This type of allergy is often referred to atopy. Though pets can develop allergies to food, food is only one potential source of the allergy and is far from being the most common type of allergy that affects our dogs and cats.
- Grains in pet food are frequently vilified as being a cause of allergies for pets. Though this can be true, allergies to grains are actually not nearly as common as some might think. Even when the cause of a skin issue is a food allergy, grains are often not the offending ingredient. More often, other ingredients in the food are responsible.
- Besides the various types of allergies that can cause skin problems, there are a variety of other illnesses that can contribute or cause skin disease as well. Parasitic diseases such as the various forms of mange, bacterial, fungal, and yeast infections can all make a pet itchy. These are just a few of the potential causes, none of which are food-related.
- If a food allergy is suspected, there is only way to determine whether the suspicion is correct. The only method of accurately diagnosing a food allergy is through the use of food trial. Allergy tests, either via skin testing or blood testing, are not recommended as a means of diagnosing a food allergy. Though they are useful in diagnosing the allergens involved in atopy, they are not reliable in diagnosing allergies to food ingredients.
- Choosing the right diet for a food trial is an important decision. The food should contain a novel protein source and, ideally, a novel carbohydrate source as well. That means the ingredients in the diet should be items your pet has not consumed in previous diets. Thus, a thorough dietary history is essential in choosing an appropriate food. The ingredient list should be carefully examined to be sure there are not protein or carbohydrate sources included in the diet that are not otherwise mentioned in the labeling. Once an adequate diet is identified, your pet must eat that diet alone, without any additional treats or flavored medications, for a period of at least 8-12 weeks.
- If your pet does respond favorably to the food trial, the ideal situation would be to confirm the diagnosis by returning to the original food, which should in turn lead to a return of the skin issues. This confirms that the improvement was, indeed, due to the change in food and not due to some other factor. In reality, many pet owners elect not to do this. Though I understand the benefit of confirming the diagnosis by re-challenging with the original diet, I cannot honestly say I blame any owner who elects not to put their pet through this step. But, at the same time, it’s also important to realize that there are drawbacks to not being able to confirm the diagnosis. Still, as long as the pet is comfortable, I support those owners who elect to simply continue to feed the diet used in the food trial, as long as the diet provides all of the pet’s nutritional needs.
Has your pet experienced skin issues? Do you believe the issues were food-related? I’d love to hear your experiences. What worked for your pet?