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What is the Difference Between an Environmental and a Food-Related Allergy in Cats and Dogs?

11 May 2021 — Miscellaneous

It can be difficult to tell whether your pet’s scratching or irritation is caused by food-related or environmental allergies. Both food and seasonal allergies can present themselves in similar ways, including symptoms such as:

  • Excessive scratching
  • Paw licking
  • Recurring ear infections
  • Biting leading to secondary lesions, scabs, hot spots, and other dermatoses.

Occasionally, food allergies will be accompanied by gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea, which is not the case for environmental allergies.

Food Intolerance Versus Food Sensitivity

Allergies occur when the immune system recognizes a certain protein (or allergen) as foreign and triggers an attack against it, resulting in the symptoms we observe such as dermatoses and, occasionally, gastrointestinal problems. Sensitivities or intolerances do not trigger any immune reaction but will present themselves more in the case of indigestion, exhibiting similar symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting. In the case of a food sensitivity or intolerance, the solution is much like the one for dogs with food allergies and requires finding a diet that caters to your pet’s needs. Although allergy tests are an option, they are often fallible, and therefore, an elimination diet is more effective in identifying possible allergens.

How to determine what kind of allergy my pet has?

Some ways to help distinguish what kind of allergies your pet has are as follows:

If you suspect your dog has a food allergy, a good place to start is the trial of an elimination diet. There are many limited-ingredient diets on the market and a select few that are clinically proven to be hypoallergenic. Common dietary allergens include chicken, grain, dairy, egg, lamb, beef, gluten, and meat meals. By choosing a diet that excludes one or more of these ingredients and by observing your pet’s symptoms over the course of a few days, you may be able to narrow down what protein your pet is allergic to. Hypoallergenic diets typically do not contain these proteins and will sometimes use an ingredient called hydrolyzed protein. Hydrolyzed protein is a protein that is broken down via water and enzymes through a process called hydrolysis. The protein is cut into smaller pieces which are not only easier to digest, but unrecognizable by the immune system. This means that the protein pieces cannot trigger an allergic reaction! Even proteins that your dog or cat is allergic to can become hypoallergenic if they are hydrolyzed. Because these proteins are easier to digest and that hypoallergenic diets typically contain limited ingredients, they are often suitable for pets suffering from food sensitivities or intolerances as well.

Remember, it will take time for your pet to adapt to an elimination diet and results may not be visible for up to 12 weeks. To soothe symptoms while your pet is adjusting to an elimination diet, it may be recommended by your veterinarian to manage dermatological symptoms with the help of steroids or other prescribed medications. If your pet is still exhibiting symptoms after some time on a hypoallergenic or elimination diet, their allergies are not likely food related.

Take notes as to when your pet’s allergies began. In Canada, we are lucky (or unlucky) to have four distinct seasons. Does your pet tend to scratch more at the start of spring or summer and less in the winter? Common environmental allergens include grass, pollen, weeds and fungi, which are more present during spring and summer. If you notice that your pet’s symptoms get worse during certain times of the year, this may be an indicator that your dog or cat has seasonal allergies. Not all environmental allergies are seasonal, however! Many pets can be allergic to dust, dust mites and mold. These allergens can be present in our home year-round, making this environmental allergy trickier to pinpoint. Environmental allergy symptoms can be treated with creams and medications. Higher levels of essential fatty acids in your pet’s diet may help ease dermatitis but will not eliminate the need for medication. It is best to discuss your options with a veterinarian if you believe your pet is suffering from seasonal or environmental allergies.

Allergies are no fun for pets or pet parents. Fortunately, if we can identify what the root cause is, we can help soothe our furry friends’ symptoms and ease their itchiness!

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