Food allergies make up only 10 percent of allergies among dogs and cats -- symptoms include pets scratching and itching their ears, head, neck and forelegs -- but they can be the most frustrating and expensive allergies to manage. If your pet suffers from food allergies, your best bet is a hypoallergenic diet. But getting your pet on the right one takes some time and testing. Fortunately, there are a slew of commercial hypoallergenic brands available, including some that are cheaper (and better, say some experts and consumers) than the prescription brands.
What's a hypoallergenic food?
If your pet is has food allergies chances are he is stimulated by one (or more) of the top pet food allergens: beef, dairy, chicken, lamb, fish, corn, wheat, soy, eggs and yeast. Veterinarians often recommend that pets with food allergies go on an elimination diet, to avoid these allergens and to feed your pet a novel protein -- that is, one they've never eaten before. To know which proteins are novel to your pet, read the labels of their previously fed pet foods and treats.
Hypoallergenic pet food includes limited-ingredient diets featuring novel proteins, such as rabbit, venison or duck, and a single carbohydrate, usually potato or pea protein. Some are prescription foods, while others are commercial foods such as Natural Balance's L.I.D. varieties.
There's some controversy surrounding hydrolyzed protein diets, recommended by some veterinarians for food allergies. Because hydrolyzed protein diets are usually made from chicken and chicken liver, a common food allergen, experts such veterinarian Karen Becker don't think they should be used for pets with food allergies. "Some pet foods marketed as allergen-free feature hydrolyzed protein and an assortment of other non-nutritious ingredients," says Becker, an advocate of better pet nutrition on MercolaHealthyPets.com
Some of the same brands reviewed in our latest cat food and dog food reports also offer expert-recommended limited ingredient or grain free, single-protein foods, including Nature's Variety Instinct Grain-Free Limited Ingredient Diets (*Est. $19 for 4.4-lb bag of the Lamb Meal Formula) or Blue Buffalo Basics (*Est. $20 for a 5-lb bag of Turkey & Potato Recipe or $2.83 for a 12.5 oz can). One of the more affordable is Natural Balance's L.I.D varieties in duck, venison and salmon with legumes, pea protein or sweet potatoes (*Est. $15 for a 5 -lb bag or $1.40 for a 6-oz can). Other hypoallergenic foods use bison, rabbit, lamb, or pheasant, and some turn to even more exotic proteins such as brushtail possum or unagi eel. For price considerations, note that generally, the more exotic the protein, the higher the cost.
Also be careful of foods labeled for sensitive stomachs or sensitive skin. These often contain several proteins, making an elimination diet impossible. Another important note on fish-only diets: Dr. Becker and many other veterinarians warn against feeding cats, or dogs, any fish products, for various health reasons.
Elimination diet process
Many grain-free, single-protein foods can also be used for an elimination diet. Read the ingredients list as some may actually include more than one protein, or broth or oil from another protein. Note that "If any previously fed ingredient is present in the elimination diet, the animal may be allergic to the novel ingredient and the diet trial will be a failure," states The Merck Veterinary Manual.
Once you find a food your pet will eat, feed them that exclusively for 12 weeks. Peteducation.com has detailed rules for elimination diets.
Even after a successful trial with the elimination diet, pet owners must still monitor the diet as your pet can develop an allergic reaction to this food over time. To keep this from happening, experts recommend feeding a rotation diet of several novel proteins your pet enjoys and can tolerate. DogFoodAdvisor.com has a basic Q&A of how rotation diets work.
You can find many hypoallergenic and single-protein pet foods at big chain stores like Petco, Petsmart, even Wal-Mart, or through online retailers such as PetFoodDirect.com, Chewy.com, and OnlyNaturalPet.com.