Last week someone called into my Sirius/XM Wednesday night show CAT CHAT® complaining that their dog was “allergic to grain” and wanted my advice on whether a “grain free” dog food would solve their problems. In my blog last week about how grain-free is a distorted concept in pet food, I got some responses on the HALO blog from dog owners who believed that “grain free” food was of special value to their dogs and were giving it credit for solving problems that it is not likely to actually address. In addition, dog owners and some veterinarians have a mistaken perception that dogs commonly have food “allergies” which frequently cause skin problems. The fact is that although a pet can have food allergies, it is not nearly as common as other types of allergies to cause those problems. I am eager to clear up some fundamental misunderstandings about the word “grain” and the word “allergic” by pet owners.

Let us start by clearing up what is meant by “grain” – something I know a lot about since I happen to have celiac sprue disease (which means an intolerance to the gluten in grains). I am supremely aware of what constitutes a grain since I have to carefully avoid grains in any form, but wheat (as bread or flour) is the one most often seen in foods. This is also true of lower quality pet foods – the presence of wheat is a red flag about a product. Wheat is the grain primarily seen in dog food. Even though dogs do not get celiac disease, wheat is generally considered a possible intestinal irritant and it is also not a quality source of nutrition. Pet foods based on corn are also seen on the list of lower quality foods, which is because it is high on the glycemic index and can cause obesity and blood sugar issues; the presence of corn indicates that a pet food is heavily carbohydrate-based rather than relying on a good protein source as the primary ingredient. When I was the PETCO spokesperson in 2010 for their natural foods, the signs on the wall in the natural section of their stores said everything you needed to know in choosing a high quality pet food: No Corn, no wheat, no soy.” However, I also want to make sure to clarify that corn is not really considered a grain and is fully allowed on a human celiac diet, as is rice – wheat is the big no-no, as other people who are gluten (grain) intolerant will confirm.

I want to answer Vicki, who wrote into the HALO blog about my previous blog in which I explained that “grain free” is not really what it seems to be because it does not mean “carb free.” She said that her Pomeranian Spunky “began having seizures at 5 years old and sniffling and scratching a lot, losing much of his hair. I bought him expensive dog food which I thought was GOOD dog food. I sat up for hours one night researching allergies in dogs and found that grains in dog food, corn and wheat in particular, caused allergies in dogs like intense scratching and biting of paws, groins, and near top of back end but also seizures. I have wheat allergies, my daughter has gluten allergies.” She said she put Spunky on a grain free dog food and all his symptoms cleared up in less than two weeks. I can pretty much assure you that if any of Spunky’s symptoms were food related they went away because she stopped feeding the previous food (which she believed to be a “good” food but which she didn’t know because she didn’t read the label). Probably something in the previous food (preservatives, chemicals, poor basic ingredients) had something to do with his scratching if it resolved that quickly – and his problems were likely fixed by eliminating the previous food, not substituting it for a new better food. However, the “sniffling” that she mentioned is an upper respiratory reaction probably from the environment (like people who take antihistamines) and not food related. Lastly, seizures in a 5-year-old Pomeranian are most likely an inherited genetic trait and unrelated to a true food allergy.

Bill wrote into HALO in response to my blog and said: “My vet says absolutely no grain for my allergic 5 year old mini-Sheltie, Bonnie. She came from a shelter with a bad yeast infection of her skin and ears. The vet said no grains, beef or poultry, because they are the most likely cause. I certainly don’t want to keep aggravating a food allergy. So, what can you suggest?”

To Bill I would respectfully suggest changing to a veterinarian who understands food allergies in dogs! A shelter dog can arrive with all sorts of conditions, including neglect, poor hygiene and almost always poor nutrition. Addressing those 3 issues in a positive constructive way will usually solve all of it – and you can think of using a high quality premium pet food like HALO as a powerful tool for ongoing health. You won’t find wheat or wheat gluten (or corn for that matter) in any premium dog food. Trying to avoid chicken, beef and wheat “just in case” would be a lifetime of management without any proven reason. I’ll bet Bonnie has left those problems in the rear view mirror now that she has a new conscientious forever home. Thanks for adopting, Bill!

Let me be really clear about the issues these good folks are dealing with:
1) Issues with human nutrition and digestion are not parallel to the dog digestive system or immune system.
2) Reading anecdotes on the Internet is not a good way to diagnose or treat any medical or health issue, for our pets or us.
3) Dogs can experience true food allergies, however, they are not as common as other allergies. Dogs are more frequently allergic to proteins – poultry (including eggs) is the number one allergen for dogs (not grains), but the only way a responsible veterinarian instructs owners to discover if their dogs are genuinely food allergic is to go on a two to three month elimination diet in which ALL commercial food is removed from the diet and the owner cooks a simple diet.
4) Never substitute assumptions about pet food for a visit to a smart veterinarian who will help you figure out your pet’s problems using common sense and medical skill and technology, not a cook pot!

Tracie Hotchner, author of The Dog Bible and The Cat Bible, guest blogs here every Thursday on healthy, natural choices for pets.

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  1. sharon kadlec says:

    I have 8yr. old cat that had a stroke last fall.He came through it with message and love.He is on heart med. I am wondering if I can give him a 25 mg.antiistamine for runny nose ?

    • admin says:

      Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for writing in. A stroke and heart disease are serious medical issues and all medications must be carefully prescribed to avoid drug interactions for your cat’s safety. I recommend you call your veterinarian as they should easily be able to help you with this.

      Dr. Donna Spector

  2. Meryl says:

    reading your blog on dog food allergies. nothing happened after changing proteins and going to limited ingredient food. How do you prepare a simple home cooked diet for dogs to get away from commercial foods for a few months?

    • admin says:

      Hi Meryl,

      Thanks for writing in. You stated that your dog had no response after changing proteins or feeding a limited ingredient food. You didn’t mention if you were using commercially available (over-the-counter) foods for this purpose or if your veterinarian provided these diets. Unfortunately many of the over-the-counter limited ingredient diets are not sufficient for a food trial or for a dog with true food allergy. If you used this type of diet, you might want to consider a truly hypoallergenic diet trial following your vets guidance. As far as home-cooking, it is fairly simple. We typically select one protein and one carbohydrate source only in order to make it truly limited ingredient. This type of diet is fed for a period of 8 to 12 weeks to assess response. This type of diet is meant to be diagnostic…to determine if a true food allergy is really the problem. The diet is not balanced for long term feeding. After the 8 to 12 week trial, you will need to work with your veterinarian to determine what the best diet is going forward.

      Good luck.
      Dr. Donna Spector

  3. Lisa Mastrosimone says:

    I have 2 yorkie poo’s who are 6 yrs old. They have had skin problems for years. (itchy skin, one dog losing some hair around his tail area) My vet has put them both on a prednisone, simplicef, and ketoconazole. Their skin will clear up after being on this. HOWEVER, if the problem is NOT resolved then they just will continue to go back on these meds, which they have a few times. I have eliminated chicken and beef from their diet, and still they are itching. So, now I am at the point where I have them on a gluten free/ grain free diet. I am not so sure it is working as I do see them still itching. They have been on it for over a week now. One vet said the can do a simple blood test to see what allergies they have, while my vet said they really dont rely on those blood tests and they can be expensive. Well, at this point I have already spent over $600 as I keep going back and forth to the vet. I just really need to get some relief for my dogs and me! Help, any suggestions. Does it take longer then a few weeks to see if what I am doing for them is the problem? (going grain and gluten free)


    • admin says:

      Hi Lisa:

      Thanks for writing in. I have included a link to an article on allergies to give you more information on allergies: The most common allergies include those to fleas, inhaled environmental particles (called atopy) and food allergies. I would be most concerned about atopy or food allergies. To get to the bottom of food allergies, a true hypoallergenic (ideally home-cooked) elimination diet trial is necessary.

      These diet trials should be performed for at least 12 weeks before it can be considered a failure. Atopy is the other issue and you can consider intradermal skin testing (usually done by a veterinary dermatologist) with the goal of considering allergy shots. The article will give you more details. Unfortunately itching is just a symptom of the underlying problem. They will itch and get secondary skin infections (that do require treatment) over and over again until the underlying issue is taken care of.

      Hope this helps.
      Dr. Donna Spector

  4. Cat Lee says:

    I have a 6 year old male shih tzu that has had ear problems for years. I have used countless medicines and do vinegar/alcohol drops several times a week. I have always fed grain free, just because I feel it is a more natural feed for canines. However, I am wondering if you think foo can be a cause for his itchy, over waxy ears? So far, he has not had any inner ear problems, they seem to be outer ear canal. He scratches them a lot and they will get tender and sore. There is no yeast or other bacteria found by the vet? I found your blog and thought you may direct me about food and ear issues. Thank You

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