Testing for Food and Environmental Sensitivities in Pets
One common cause of disease in dogs and cats is sensitivity to diet. I have found that getting pets on a diet that is right for their body can eliminate many common problems we encounter in pets: Skin disease, itching, ear infections, digestive problems, seizures and any kind of inflammation in the body. It doesn’t work every time, but it works often enough that it has become my first line of treatment.
However, figuring out what an animal is reacting to is not a simple process.
At this time, this is how most vets address food sensitivities:
- Diet Elimination Trial with Prescription diets: Veterinarians are taught in vet school to treat animals with food sensitivities with prescription diets consisting of hydrolyzed proteins. Hydrolyzed proteins are proteins that are broken down into such tiny pieces that the body doesn’t recognize them. In Italics below, I write my personal opinion about these diets.
In no uncertain terms, and with all due respect to my colleagues who are doing their best with this complicated disease process, I believe that these diets are terrible. Many of them include ingredients such as “powdered cellulose” which is a technical term for “refined wood pulp.” You can read about it here: Cellulose Powdered (Inactive Ingredient) – Drugs.com. One of the companies uses hydrolyzed feathers. It is basically the equivalent of feeding animals cardboard with vitamins.
Does this approach work? Yes… to a degree. I often find that animals can do well on these diets for a few months or even years, only later to have their immune systems fall apart in some way and other diseases show up. Or, their bodies eventually cannot tolerate even these foods. This is because these diets are only eliminating the problem temporarily, but they are not actually fixing it. It would be like duct-taping a ruptured pipe. It will work for now but it won’t work forever.
Traditional medicine approaches immune dysregulation by shutting down the whole system. And what I have found time and time again, is that a dysregulated immune system may need a temporary shut down (with medication or hydrolyzed diets) but feeding cardboard or “tricking” the immune system with hydrolyzed proteins is only a temporary solution and doesn’t actually fix the problem long-term. When the initial fires are out, what the body needs is support to fix itself. This support is available with herbs and real-food diets.
This topic requires a longer discussion, but this is a basic summary of my thoughts on this topic.
- Allergy Blood Tests
It would make logical and scientific sense that if an animal has a sensitivity to something, that it would have antibodies against that substance. And so, companies have created a test for animals that looks for something called an IgE (or Immunoglobulin E) which is a type of antibody present in the blood when there is an allergy to something.
When most vets perform an allergy panel, this is the test they are running. Allergy panels can look at either IgE levels to common foods or to common environmental factors (such as trees, pollen, grasses and bugs).
Here are my thoughts on this test:
I used the blood test for many years in my animal patients. Honestly, I would have been thrilled if these tests were the final answer. However, my experience with the antibody tests is that they “sometimes worked.” On top of it, these tests cost anywhere between $400-$1000 depending on which tests you run. This is a lot of money to pay for a test that may or may not give us useful information.
There are usually two categories to these tests: Food and Environmental. In my experience, the results of these tests didn’t correlate with the disease.
For example, the test results would show antibodies to turkey, chicken and corn. However, turkey was the only food the pet could eat without getting sick (vomiting or diarrhea). And some results that came up “negative” for antibodies would immediately make the pet vomit when they ate that food.
This didn’t happen every time. Sometimes, the antibodies did give us useful information. But for me, it seemed like a 50/50 toss-up. Which again, seemed like a low success rate given the high cost of these tests.
When it comes to the environmental allergies, the test gives interesting information that isn’t always practical. You can’t keep your pet in a bubble or cut down all the trees in your yard just because of their allergies. It also doesn’t change the treatment. Whether your pet is allergic to spruce or pine, the treatment for those allergies will be the same.
The one exception to this: knowing the exact environmental allergies is useful is when making allergy shots. Many companies that run the allergy panels also offer allergy shots to treat the allergies. However, allergy shots have their limitations. They often work better in young animals than in older animals. They cost a few hundred dollars every few months. They require owners to give injections or daily treatments. And on top of it, it can take anywhere from 10 months – 2 years before they start working. This is a long time.
And the odd thing is that over time I discovered the strangest phenomenon in my patients:
If I put animals with seasonal allergies or environmental allergies on the right food and herbal protocol for their body, oftentimes the seasonal, or environmental allergies went away completely.
For this reason, I always target diet first. It is the easiest thing to control and change and may even impact their ability to handle environmental allergies.
- Saliva Antibody Tests
A company called Hemopet created a test that looks for antibodies (again the part of the immune system that attacks something) in the saliva rather than in the blood. This approach makes sense: The saliva is the first place that the body comes in contact with the food, so if it sees it as a foreign “invader” this is where the antibodies would accumulate.
I ran this test in my patients for many years. My overall experience with this test was positive. I found that the success rate with food allergies was higher than with the blood tests. I would say 75% of the results correlated with the disease. However, there were still a portion of animals who could only tolerate the food that their body had antibodies against. So we were left continuing our current food protocol even despite the test results indicating the body didn’t like the food.
Some pet owners wanted to run both the saliva test and the blood test. What was interesting is that both of these tests often gave different results. On the saliva test, the body was creating antibodies to chicken for example, but in the blood, there were no chicken antibodies. Again creating a bit of a muddled picture. However, when in doubt, I trusted the saliva tests more in these cases.
The saliva test, called Nutriscan, is also pricey. At almost $300 if you purchase directly from the company (Hemopet (labordatenbank.com)) and more if you purchase from your veterinarian (you are paying for their time to run and interpret the test for you), this is not in everyone’s budget. Also, it is disheartening when the results don’t correlate with what we see clinically. Ie the animal does great on the foods the test says are bad for them.
On top of it, this test looks at 24 common foods. While this is a lot, there are many more foods that owners feed that are not included in this test.
Dr. Magda’s Approach to food and environmental sensitivities
I discovered very early in my veterinary career (over 12 years ago) that food sensitivities were the cause of many problems in pets. I was shocked at how easy it was to treat disease in animals by switching them to a Grain-Free diet. Keep in mind, this is when Grain-free diets were small companies making high quality food and not infiltrated by the lower-quality ingredients that are in them today. (A topic for another time :)).
Because of the high price points of the various allergy tests and their sometimes “wrong” results, this never became a first line approach for me. I used these tests when I was desperate and needed some guidance, even knowing that the results may or may not help the pet.
For years, my approach became the trial and error approach. In other words, we would start foods that were least likely to be common allergens in animals.
I found these foods to be common allergens:
I found that many pets responded better to these foods:
And so, a common approach became trying the low-allergenic foods and seeing how the animals responded. I also found that having the food in its whole and natural form (either through cooked food or raw food) tended to yield better results.
However, sometimes I was wrong. If the first food we tried made them worse, we would then try a different combination of low-allergen foods next.
You can imagine that only the most patient of pet owners were willing to put up with the “trial and error” approach. Watching your pet get worse on a food can be stressful and demoralizing. Do you continue trusting a vet whose diet advice made your pet worse? Sometimes the answer to that was no.
I knew I needed a better approach, and so this is where Glacier Peaks Holistics test enters the story.
Glacier Peak Holistics Sensitivity Test
In holistic and alternative medicine, there are two categories of diagnostics and treatments. There are the ancient sciences such as Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda that are based on thousands of years of observation of the body and only recently being explained by science. There are many recent peer-reviewed articles on PubMed that are starting to look at why and how these ancient treatments work.
Then there is the “new frontier” medicine which includes tests and treatments that are more in the category of “this seems to work but we don’t understand why” category.
I would put the Glacier Peak test into this category.
I have now sent out close to 100 of these tests (and counting) and have been overall pleased with the results. The pet owners who avoided the foods and markers in red have seen their pet’s condition improve.
This test is also currently more affordable than the common allergy panels at ~$100 per test. Also, this test gives you over 300 common food and environmental factors, making it more comprehensive test than the antibody tests. And so, having some kind of a framework to start with at $100 price point for me is worth it even if we don’t entirely understand why it works.
I will write a more detailed discussion about the GPH test in future blog posts (and what it means to use biofeedback technology to look for sensitivities), but suffice it to say that at this moment, this is the best and most cost effective way I have found to get animals better quickly without the frustrations of the trial and error approach.
However, I want to be clear that I use the GPH test as a starting point.
I still take all the results with a grain of salt and I would encourage pet owner’s to do the same. For example, many pets test positive (green) to the GPH products. There are only occasional red results. I have not actually used their products and so I don’t know if this is true. Are their products actually that good? At this time, I do not know. I will update this when I know more.
Many, if not most pets show up with Yellow imbalances in the body. I have had quite a few pet owners become worried about these results thinking that their pet is very ill.
However, I have yet to see GPH results without (or even with less than) 6 yellow imbalances. Even in puppies. This means that if your pet is alive and in this world (and drinking water, breathing the Los Angeles air, was birthed by dogs and cats that ate commercial kibble and/or is living among stressed humans), they will likely have some imbalances.
We should address these things as best we can without going into spirals of worry about them. They do not mean that your pet is very sick or even unhealthy. They are just elements that we should pay attention to.
Also, most animals show up with many markers in red. This is nothing to worry about. Just avoid foods marked in red wherever possible, but don’t stress if they occasionally eat something marked in red. See below for more details on this.
Caveats to the GPH test (and all allergy tests):
- Sensitivities change over time.
There are many people who were allergic to something as children but then are no longer allergic to it as adults. Or the opposite can also be true. As a child you could eat something that now you can’t.
This is the same for pets. The more exposure an animal has to a certain food or categories of food, the more likely you are to develop a sensitivity to it.
- An allergic reaction and a sensitivity can suddenly change
This means that a food an animal ate its whole life can become a sensitivity from one day to the next.
**I have found that being exposed to something during a time of stress increases the chances of becoming sensitive to it.**
This makes sense. If your body is stressed and on “high alert,” it might wrongly attack something that it used to ignore.
One odd thing I have seen as a vet: some dogs develop diarrhea during a cross-country move even with no change in diet. The food they ate their whole life now gives them diarrhea after eating it during a time of stress. Even though they seemingly enjoyed the trip and were running, playing and wagging their tail, a part of them was stressed about the changes, the long drive, etc. Any change in routine, especially a big change, is going to create stress for even the most mellow of pets. And now, the food that they had eaten since they were puppies is no longer agreeing with them.
This is why relying on a GPH test or an allergy panel from last year (or even 6 months ago) may no longer be accurate.
- Rich foods can cause diarrhea
Some pet owners have found that fish oil or sardines were not listed as a sensitivity, but their dog or cat developed diarrhea after eating them. This does not necessarily mean that they are sensitive or even allergic to this food. It just means that the food is too rich and their digestion is not strong enough to handle it at this time (this can improve over time too).
- Not all markers in red need to be eliminated
Some pets are sensitive to many items and the owner cannot find foods that meet these criteria.
My general advice is:
Go to Pet Food Express. This is a pet store chain that tends to have higher quality foods with more options for restricted and limited diets as opposed to the big chains (Petco and Petsmart).
If you are open to raw food, Bravo raw food has options without any fruits or vegetables. Locally, you can go to Harmony Farms: Harmony Farms (harmonyfarmsca.com). Under the “Products” tab, you will find Pet foods, some of which also don’t always include vegetables or fruits.
The other option is an easier first-line approach: Ignore the vegetable/fruit sensitivities and only avoid the proteins in red.
For some animals, the protein sensitivities are more important than the fruit/vegetable sensitivities.
However, if your pet is still showing signs of sensitivity (vomiting, diarrhea, itching), then try cooking at home without the fruits/vegetables in red and see if the problems resolve. If they do, then you may have to look further for foods that work with their bodies.
- And lastly, not all disease is diet-sensitivity related. And, this test is not perfect.
I wish I had the perfect test for animal sensitivities, but at this time, it does not exist. And so, this is our next best option other than the trial and error approach.
Some animals have a deeper disease pattern happening that requires more than just a diet change. For these animals, using herbs, probiotics, enzymes, and other supplements can be crucial to strengthening their bodies so that they stop having these negative reactions.
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