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Is Our Pets' Food Making Them Itch & Scratch?

A yellow labrador puppy scratching its ear while sitting on a grassy lawn outside.

As pet owners, we know that it's perfectly natural for our dogs and cats to have the occasional itch. Reoccurring or persistent itching, however, can be a sign that all it not well with our pet's skin or coat health.

Some pet foods contains ingredients that our pets may not be able to tolerate and this can result in dry and itchy skin. Some of the most common ingredients that can trigger this sort of reaction include; wheat, maize, corn, and even some dairy products such as milk. As well as this, pet foods that contain grains and cereals can also attract storage mites. If you suspect your pet may have an allergy or skin disorder, examining their diet can be a good place to start in identifying the cause of the issue.

Atopic Dermatitis

Studies have suggest that food intolerance could be one of the most common causes of allergic dermatitis in both dogs and cats. In dogs specifically, as many as 30% of dogs diagnosed with atopic dermatitis are also diagnosed with having food allergies.

Atopic dermatitis is a skin disease more commonly seen in dogs than cats, and is the result of the animal reacting to a specific allergen either found in the environment or in their food.

Symptoms include:

  • Frequently scratching of the ears and stomach

  • Excessive licking or chewing of paws, abdomen and groin

  • Reddened ears

  • Reddened eyelids

  • Hair loss (if left untreated)

  • Black and deep pink pigmentation of the skin around the groin and armpits (if left untreated)

  • Bacterial infections (if left untreated)

  • Hot spots on the skin when you apply your hand to your pet’s coat

Food Intolerances & Allergies

Food intolerances can occur at any age, but are most likely to develop in dogs between six months and three years, and in cats between three months and eleven years. Some animals can remain on the same diet for years without any difficulties, yet still develop an intolerance to their food at some point in their lives.

It is important to note that there is a distinguishable difference between food intolerances and food allergies. A food allergy causes an immune system reaction and can cause severe or even life threatening symptoms. In comparison, food intolerances tend to be limited to digestive problems and less severe symptoms.

Some of the ingredients more commonly known for causing allergic reactions and intolerances include wheat, maize and corn. All of these ingredients are difficult for cats and dogs to digest, especially cats. Cats cannot produce the enzyme amylase, which is responsible for the breaking down of carbohydrates via the saliva, intestines and pancreas. Dogs are capable of producing small amounts of salivary amylase, so most are able to tolerate small amounts of poorly digestible carbohydrates such as wheat.

If a dog or cat has an allergic reaction to certain ingredients, they will exhibit symptoms much like with humans. The most common allergic reaction to pet food in dogs in itchy dry skin, especially around the ears, feet and muzzle. Cats often react by developing dermatitis around the neck and face. Loss of fur in also a common symptom in both dogs and cats.

Other Ingredients In Pet Food That Can Make Our Pets Itch

Another ingredient found in pet food that can cause allergic reactions or food intolerances is lactose. Lactose is the sugar found in dairy foods including milk. Once a puppy or kitten has been weaned off of their mother's milk the production of lactase (the enzyme responsible for the breaking down of lactose) slows down. Without suitable amounts of this enzyme, our pets cannot metabolise milk and become intolerant to it.

Being lactose intolerant is more likely to result in gastrointestinal upset for our pets as opposed to itchy or dry skin. However, it is important to note that between 10-15% of animals with dermatological reactions may also show gastrointestinal reactions. As a result, we recommend being aware of all sorts of symptoms if your pet is showing an allergic reaction or food intolerance.

Hidden allergens can also be a problem. For example, mixed vegetable oils are commonly used in commercial pets foods, but can contain ingredients such as corn or soy, both known to cause allergies in dogs and cats. If you suspect your pet may have a food allergy or intolerance, it is important to check out the labels of their food and look for any potentially problematic ingredients.

Storage Mites

It's not just the ingredients in pet food that can cause our pets to itch. They can also be caused by mites attracted to the food. If you are feeding a dry food that contains grains of any sort (including rice), then there is a possibility that the food will attract storage mites. These microscopic arthropods are naturally attracted to dry pet foods, especially those containing grains and cereals. If a dog or cat is allergic to storage mites, then their presence can cause atopic dermatitis.

It is incredibly hard to prevent storage mites from infesting dry food, so the most effective course of action is to change to a grain-free alternative dry food, grain-free wet food or raw food diet. It is also important to ensure any treats are grain-free as well!

What To Do To Help Our Pets

If you believe your pet is showing symptoms of food intolerance or an allergic reaction and wish to change their diet, there are certain steps you should take.

  • Ensure that any new food is free of cereals and grains. Pay particular attention to the lesser ingredients as well as ones that make up the bulk of the food.

  • Once you have chosen a suitable new food, introduce it to your pet slowly. Introduction a new food too quickly can exasperate gastrointestinal issues and may put your pet off of trying the new food. Begin by adding a small amount of the new food to your pet's existing food, while decreasing the amount of old food being fed. Continue increasing the new food amount over one to two weeks, paying particular attention to your pet's gut health.

Remember, if your pet is showing signs of atopic dermatitis or other allergic reactions it is advisable to seek veterinary advice!

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