Feline Allergies ~ A comprehensive look at what has your Cat Scratching
It is time we discuss the very important topic of food allergies in cats. Food allergies are said to be the third most common type of allergy in cats. With only flea bite allergies and atopy (inhalant allergies) being more prevalent. Of course in our hairless cat breeds flea bites thankfully are not something that we or our cats have to endure so this means when we see our cats presenting with signs of allergies in our cats food allergies are a likely cause. Symptoms of food allergies include: itching, scratching, dry skin, chronic ear infections, yeast issues, coughing, wheezing, sneezing, hair loss and excessive shedding in our furry friends. Additionally the symptoms which often strongly indicate a food allergy include gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, gas, excessive gut sounds, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The first thing you need to do if your cat is presenting with any of the above symptoms is to take them in to see your veterinarian for an examination. Most veterinarians after discussing the symptoms and history will prescribe a trial treatment for atopic allergies which will often include a short term steroid, Benadryl, a medicated shampoo, and parasite infection control medications. This is a very good place to start as ruling out all other causes of allergy prior to addressing possible food allergies is the fastest way to get your kitty well. However, please note that I do not recommend the use of ANY topical flea treatments in these cats not even the generally regarded “safe” use of revolution as I have personally seen it cause seizures in a domestic kitten and have heard many reports of negative reactions from other hairless cat parents. Some of the oral flea medications have a wider range of safety but again I don’t recommend these as a trial treatment for allergy issues either as fleas and notoedric mange are very seldom a cause of problem in these cats. So please if your veterinarian wants to prescribe these treatments for your baby, tell them you want to exhaust all other options first including ruling our food allergies.
So let’s fast forward, it has been several weeks and you have given your cat the prescribed steroid as instructed, and given that weekly bath suffering through the ridiculously long 10 minute contact time before rinsing your kitty, you have changed to natural laundry detergent, natural cat litter, vacuumed cleaned with natural cleaner, and purchased a home air purifier (you are super kitty parent!!!) Despite all of your efforts your beloved kitty is STILL miserable, now what??? Well the next thing you need to do is to perform a food trial through an elimination diet. What the heck is an elimination diet you might ask, and WHAT do I feed my cat???
Before we jump into specifics on what foods to feed your cat on the allergy food trial elimination diet, let’s first look at some key important factors in regards to the food trial.
- First, it is very important to note that this elimination diet must last for a minimum of 6 weeks and has been shown to be most successful for patients when followed for up to 12 weeks in length. Recent studies have shown that the previously accepted recommendation of 3 weeks only show a small percentage of patients symptoms improving and resolving within this time period.
- It is also critically important to remember during this food trial period not to feed your cat anything other than the trial food as these can skew the trial results. The items to eliminate during this period include:
- Flavored medications including supplements
- Flavored toothpastes
- Flavored toys
- Any type of food when giving medications
- There is no evidence that blood tests are accurate for the diagnosis of food allergies. There are intradermal skin testing which is excellent for diagnosing atopic allergies, but it is ineffective for food allergies. The only way to diagnose a food allergy is through a food trial.
It is important to know that there is a difference between food allergies and food intolerances. A true food allergy will produce symptoms within a short period of time and can cause a range of symptoms including itching, rash and even swelling/anaphylaxis which can be life threatening. This is not typically the case in food allergies with your cat. More likely your cat is experiencing a food intolerance which produces a more delayed response mediated by a different part of the immune system and can take up to several days to produce a reaction. This food intolerance immune response is typically responsible for the various GI issues related to food allergies. For simplification of this article and the subject in general, we will however refer to food intolerances as food allergies.
It is very important to note that at this time there are no effective treatments for food allergies except avoidance. Short term use of antihistamines and steroids can be helpful but are not treatments. These “Band-Aid” treatments will also significantly affect your cat’s immune system response in a detrimental way and can lead to other serious medication related health effects if used long term.
Now, let’s discuss what you will need to do to begin a food trial to help determine what the cause of your cat’s food allergy is. The first thing you will need to assess is what possible common offenders are in the current diet you are feeding your cat. There are several well-known ingredients which are common causes of food allergies in cats. These ingredients typically include the following:
- Wheat Gluten
- Artificial Sugars
You may notice now that the food you have been feeding your cat contains many of the above listed possible allergy offenders. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in the current market of cat foods available. Many of the ingredients that cats can be allergic to are widely used by many pet food manufactures because these ingredients are cheap and easy to come by. This has created a very unfortunate phenomena of not only more cats than ever before suffering with food allergies, but leading to many other food/diet related preventable disease… but let’s not digress, that is a whole separate blog article. If you find yourself reading your cats food label and feeling dismayed by all of the typical allergens included please do not fear, you are not alone, most of the population will find themselves in the same predicament. We tend to put too much faith into the pet food companies, believing that they would not produce food which is harmful for our pets. We buy into the marketing schemes of “science based,” “all natural,” “grain-free,“ and think we are making good choices. The best thing you can do is to make a change NOW and bring your cat health today!
This is where you need to jump online, (amazon.com or chewy.com both have great selections of pet foods for very good prices) or in your car, for a trip down to your local pet store. Preferably find a locally owned holistic pet food store which will offer a good selection of the various brands of foods which will offer your kitty relief and good health once again. What you will be looking for is a food which has a “novel protein” to your cat. What this means is a protein source that your cat has not been exposed to before, or has not been eaten on a regular basis. Novel proteins for your cat may be duck, rabbit, lamb, turkey, quail, or venison. It is also important to be sure the food fed during the food trial period is also free of all other possible allergens like grain, corn, soy, and wheat. It is important to note also that some cats will have allergy issues from eating foods which contain certain starches, additives, and oils which are used to thicken and bind food ingredients and not typically known or thought of to cause food allergies or sensitivities. These ingredients to be on the lookout for include: pea fiber, corn starch, wheat flour, soybean meal, guar gum, soybean oil, locust bean gum, carrageenan, xanthan gum, fish oil, and artificial sugars such as fructooligosaccharides.
I must take time here to point out a very common and frankly very disturbing recommendation from many veterinarians when it comes to treating food allergies. It is common practice when a veterinarian has ruled out other causes of allergy symptoms in your cat and suspects a food allergy, to recommend you feed your cat a specially formulated veterinary prescription diet like those produced by Hills Science Diet. In theory this seems like a very practical and very good option for you and your cat; a food which has been “scientifically” formulated for cats with food allergies should be a no brainer right? Well unfortunately this is seldom the case as many of the foods recommended are still laden with ingredients which are common culprits of food allergies, and what is worse is they are often times lacking in overall nutritional quality for your cat. Let’s take a look at one very commonly used and prescribed veterinary diet for food allergies in cats; Science Diet d/d Cat Dry food for Skin/Food Sensitivities. The first thing to note that this is already a poor recommendation as all dry foods contain more preservatives and carbohydrates than wet food diets due to the simple fact of the necessity for shelf life. The best diet for ANY cat, not only cats that are suffering with food allergies, are an all wet food diet of a good quality canned or raw food. Now let’s take a look at the ingredients in the d/d diets and look for suspect food allergy triggers:
I have highlighted the possible suspect ingredients in the list below to help make it easier to decipher the very often confusing and even over-whelming food labels we see in our cats foods.
Ingredients: Yellow Peas, Pea Protein, Venison, Green Peas, Pork Fat, Powdered Cellulose, Calcium Sulfate, Chicken Liver Flavor, Fish Oil, Lactic Acid, Choline Chloride, DL-Methionine, Calcium Carbonate, Potassium Chloride, Taurine, Glyceryl Monostearate, Iodized Salt, Potassium Sulfate, Dicalcium Phosphate, vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate (source of Vitamin C), Niacin Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate, Vitamin A Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Riboflavin Supplement, Biotin, Vitamin B12 Supplement , Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Folic Acid, Vitamin D3 Supplement), Cysteine, minerals (Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Oxide, Copper Sulfate, Manganous Oxide, Calcium Iodate, Sodium Selenite), Mixed Tocopherols for freshness, Natural Flavors, Beta-Carotene.
The first ingredient on the list we find which is suspect is yellow peas. Yellow peas, pea protein and green peas are suspect as causing food allergy issues due to the fact that peas are actually part of the legume (bean) family, and as we all know beans are famously known for their indigestion causing symptoms such as gas and bloating. This is true in humans and even more so in cats who are obligate carnivores meaning they can only primarily eat meat, unlike humans and dogs who are omnivores, and can eat meat and plant foods. Peas and other legumes contain lectin proteins which are their natural defense and these lectin proteins cannot be broken down by cat’s who lack the necessary enzymes to digest them. This means this supposed food allergy diet not only is hugely lacking in quality protein but contains a protein which could actually make your cats symptoms worse.
Next up we have powdered cellulose which is a nice term for chemically extracted wood pulp; better known as sawdust. I know, I know, you are thinking; “What; sawdust seriously!!!”…YES seriously! Powdered cellulose is often added to various processed foods because it aids in the anti-coagulation (clumping) of the foods. Besides the obvious that you are paying your hard earned money for sawdust, this is simply cheap filler used by pet food companies to add weight to the food content. The real BIG problem however is the fact that cats cannot digest this at all so it is very likely to cause GI issues including constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, or vomiting; not to mention the overall strain on the digestive system (which holds up to 80% of your immune function) to work to try to digest and indigestible material.
Fish oil is the next suspect ingredient on the list, this is clear to see why as fish or any other seafood is often a cause of food allergies in cats, so when on a food trial to pin point what the cause of the problem is the food should not contain anything that will be potentially an allergen. My other concern is that it doesn’t specify what kind of fish. Often smaller fish like sardines, krill, and anchovies are not an issue in cats like many of the larger fish such as tuna and salmon, and do not contain the levels of harmful toxins like mercury…. (that is a whole separate blog article…) However if a manufacturer simply writes fish oil we have no idea what type of fish and in fact it is typically a hodgepodge of several different types of fish combined together so there would be no way to discern that one fish over another is causing a problem.
Glyceryl Monostearate. Just the words itself should be enough of an indication as to why this should not be in your cats food. As a general rule of thumb, if you do not know how to pronounce it, have never heard of it, and it sounds like a chemical, it likely should not be in your cats food! Glyceryl Monostearate is a colorless, odorless sweet-tasting flaky powder which is an additive to help thicken and preserve foods. It is also used in cosmetics, hair care products, and many other non-food products. This ingredient has been shown to be lethal in lab rats and is still under investigation by the FDA. It also contains BHT which is a known carcinogen, or cancer forming agent. This ingredient is obviously not safe at all to be in your cat’s food and certainly does not help if your cat is already suffering with allergies!
Most of all the remaining ingredients are added vitamins, minerals, and amino acids which have to be added into the food since there are not significant enough levels to make the food balanced with the utter lack of quality ingredients in this food. As a general rule of thumb, in regards to an allergy-free diet or not, any foods which contain a fewer amount of added vitamins and minerals is a better choice of food because this means that these vital nutrients are being provided by the actual food ingredients in the formula the way nature intended, not by chemically derived lab formulations.
The last suspect ingredients on the list are Natural Flavors; sounds harmless enough right. I mean it even says it is natural? Well think again. Unfortunately this is a very loosely defined word in the eyes of the FDA and leaves much to be unknown as to the source of, and the means of producing the said “natural flavors.” Here is a statement from the FDA in regards to these additives: “With respect to flavors, pet foods often contain ‘digests,’ which are materials treated with heat, enzymes and/or acids to form concentrated natural flavors. Only a small amount of a ‘chicken digest’ is needed to produce a ‘Chicken Flavored Cat Food,’ even though no actual chicken is added to the food.” What this means is that as long as the flavor comes from some plant, animal, or even mined source, a dog food company can call it natural, as long as it produces the chemical flavor naturally. In many cases, this means that the manufacturer has extracted flavors from animal products or even chemically produced it, concentrated it, and then added it to the food. Again, this obviously could cause issues for a slew of reasons, but focusing on the intent of this article if we do not know WHAT the ingredient even is, we cannot be sure if it is an allergen to your cat or not.
Alright, so don’t let this leave you discouraged and head spinning wondering what in the world CAN you safely feed your cat who has food allergies; there are GREAT options out there! The BEST diet for a cat with food allergies is a raw food diet; either a complete pre-made diet or a homemade diet as long as it is well balanced and formulated and approved by a veterinary nutritionist. However, I know there are many of you who do not want to feed raw diets for various reasons, so the next best diet is a well-balanced homemade cooked diet or a pre-made canned food diet. There are many different options on the market which are great for a food trial and for the simplicity of this article I will just highlight one raw and one canned diet. I do NOT recommend any dry food diets for cats with allergies as there are too many added ingredients and carbohydrates needed. The main things to be sure to look for in a food which will be a good choice for a food allergy trial for your cat are as follows:
- Only one or two protein sources and from a novel protein, or a non-suspect protein.
- Free of grain, soy, wheat, dairy, and artificial ingredients.
- Contains a high amount of protein vs. carbohydrate ratio 95-97% is optimum.
- Most foods sold through a privately owned holistic pet food store will be higher quality and contain less fillers, starches, and artificial ingredients which are suspect.
- Organic Certified or made with organic ingredients will help ensure (not guarantee) a good non allergy formulation.
The first diet I will recommend as appropriate for feeding on a food allergy trial is “Natures Variety Raw Instinct” rabbit formula. This diet meets the food trial requirements as it only contains the novel proteins rabbit and pork. It also has a limited amount of other whole food ingredients; fruits, vegetables, and supplements which are not known to cause allergy/intolerance. It also is complete and balanced for all life stages which is a very important to consider as your cat may have to be on an allergy free diet for the rest of his/her life so you want to be sure it is balanced and full of healthy vital nutrients. Be sure to check out my raw feeding blog for more information on how to properly feed and store the raw food diets. The ingredients are as follows:
Ingredients: Rabbit (including Ground Rabbit Bone), Pork Liver, Pork Heart, Pork Fat, Ground Pork Bone, Rabbit Liver, Yeast Culture, Pumpkinseeds, Montmorillonite Clay, Apples, Broccoli, Butternut Squash, Rabbit Kidney, Rabbit Lung, Salt, Cod Liver Oil, Dried Kelp, Carrots, Spinach, Taurine, Dried Chicory Root, Blueberries
Secondly let’s take a look at a great canned food option for those of you who do not want to feed raw, also canned food will also be a more economical option for you. One of the best possibilities for you and your cat is to try the “Hound and Gatos” lamb formula canned cat food. This is a limited ingredient food without any suspect allergens, is available at a reasonable daily feeding cost, and is also complete and balanced for all life stages. The ingredients are as follows:
Ingredients: Lamb, Duck Liver, Water, Dicalcium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Potassium Chloride, Choline Chloride, Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Salt, Cassia Gum, Taurine, Magnesium Proteinate, Iron Proteinate, Zinc Proteinate, Manganese Proteinate, Copper Proteinate, Sodium Selenite, Calcium Iodate, Thiamine Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Niacin Supplement (Vitamin B3), Vitamin E Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate (Vitamin B5), Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin Supplement (Vitamin B2), Biotin (Vitamin B7), Vitamin B12 Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Folic Acid (Vitamin B9)
You may have to look to a specialty locally owed holistic pet food store to locate these foods or you can search online. Many times the owners and staff at a holistic pet store will be very knowledgeable about food and nutrition for your pet as well and be able to guide you to make a good choice for your pet. Another factor to consider is often a local pet store will be happy to put in special orders and you can often get a really good deal by ordering a food your pet eats frequently in bulk quantity. Just do a simple google search to find the store nearest you.
The last thing I want to mention when it comes to food allergies in your cat is hydrolyzed protein. This is often prescribed by a veterinarian as a food trial for a pet who is suspect of experiencing food allergies. I do not ever recommend this diet to be fed unless ALL other options have been tried and are not helping including a good quality raw or homemade diet. The reason for this is that the over-all health properties of these diets are very poor and even if it DOES help your pet with their food allergy issues, it will very likely in time promote other health issues due to lack of nutritional value and inappropriate ingredients. Not to mention these diets are VERY expensive.
What does hydrolyzed protein mean? A hydrolyzed protein diet contains a single regular protein; let’s say chicken, which is a common allergenic food. Hydrolysis breaks down the chicken into particles so small that, according to the research, the protein is no longer recognized by the immune system as an allergen. The benefit, it would seem, is you can still feed your cat the food she’s allergic to, but the protein molecules have been processed in such a way that they trick the immune system.
In my opinion this is absolutely the wrong approach. First of all, the animal’s body is not actually being returned to health. It’s only being tricked into not responding to the food it has grown allergic to; this is assuming the hydrolyzed protein behaves as advertised. Secondly, the methods and chemicals used in the hydrolysis process don’t convert the protein into amino acids in the same natural way your pet’s body does. And really, no one knows the long-term side effects that these unnaturally derived substances might have on the health of dogs and cats.
Soy is also commonly used as a protein source in these hydrolyzed diets. Soy, which is a common allergen for pets, is a poor quality source of protein and can be a GI aggravate as well in itself. It’s totally biologically inappropriate for dogs and cats. On top of that, it’s estrogenic, which means it can eventually wreak havoc in your cat’s endocrine system.
Just to help drive my point home, let’s look at one of the common veterinary recommend hydrolyzed protein diets for your cat with food allergy issues. This is the ingredient list for the “Hills Prescription Diet Z/D” canned cat food:
Ingredients: Hydrolyzed chicken liver, water, corn starch, soybean oil, powdered cellulose, calcium carbonate, dl-methionine, potassium chloride, dicalcium phosphate, choline chloride, vitamins (vitamin E supplement, thiamine mononitrate, ascorbic acid (source of vitamin C), niacin supplement, pyridoxine hydrochloride, calcium pantothenate, vitamin B12 supplement, riboflavin supplement, biotin, vitamin D3 supplement, folic acid), iodized salt, taurine, calcium sulfate, minerals (zinc oxide, ferrous sulfate, manganous oxide, copper sulfate, calcium iodate, sodium selenite), beta-carotene
Again we see many things wrong with this diet, the first being that the protein source is hydrolyzed chicken liver, which even if it tricks your cats immune system into not reacting, it is still likely the same protein cause of why your pet was having an issue in the first place as chicken is one of the most common allergens. Corn starch, not appropriate for a cat’s digestive system, nor is soybean oil, or powdered cellulose. Also as mentioned above, this diet can be seriously lacking in vital amino acids which should be obtained through the whole, natural source of a protein in the diet, and are altered and destroyed in the hydrolization process. In my opinion these diets should not even be considered being fed under any circumstance when there are many far better options.
I know this is getting to be a long article and I apologize but I couldn’t wrap this up without discussing one last very important point of consideration which is how to help PREVENT your cat from developing food allergies in the first place. It is very common practice especially for cat owners, due to the often finicky nature of cats, to choose one brand of food, one type of food, and sometimes even one specific formulation of that food and feed only that to their cat for year, after year, after year. This can be a problematic routine for many reasons, including lack of variety to stimulate your cat which may lead to under eating, potential for lack of various critical amino acids, vitamins and minerals derived from eating a variety of different protein sources; fruits and vegetables, and manufacturer’s formulations. This type of feeding greatly increases the possibility of your cat developing food allergy to the ingredients in the formulation of food being over fed. An allergy reaction such as skin rash or other GI issue can appear suddenly which leaves many cat owners to not suspect a food allergy issues as the figure since nothing has changed in their cat’s diet for years and years this could not possibly be the problem. Unfortunately this often leads to many cats going undiagnosed for a very long period of time with the symptoms wither being completely ignored, or attributed to other potential causes of infection or allergies.
To understand the mechanisms involved in how this can and does happen you need to know some about how the GI system operates. In a healthy body, the food that is eaten will be broken down into single amino acids and nutrients which pass from the GI tract into the bloodstream, where the body can make good use of them. The GI tract is a semi-permeable barrier that is designed to thoroughly absorb nutrients that have been totally digested. It is designed to keep out partially digested nutrients, as well as other indigestible things pets eat. Ie. Feathers, grass, string, litter, hairballs, … YUCK!
Over time a cat being fed the same diet, especially of low quality ingredients like rendered meats; hooves, feet, feathers, beaks, corn, wheat, rice, soy, eggs, milk, yeast, potato, and beets ect., will stress the GI system and lower its function to properly digest foods. This leads to a cat developing dysbiosis; otherwise known in layman’s terms as leaky gut. Dysbiosis will allow partially digested foods to pass through the GI wall and into the bloodstream, where the immune system will mount a massive allergic reaction triggered by these foreign invaders.
Therefore, as a proactive, educated cat owner, you have the power to help eliminate the chance of your darling four legged companion from ever developing a food allergy in the first place by following these simple steps:
- Feed a balanced, species-appropriate diet. Commercially prepared or properly prepared home-made raw diet being best, followed closely by a quality home cooked or canned food diet, followed by a properly served (enough hydration) freeze dried raw diet.
- Strictly reduce the amount of grains and carbohydrates in your cat’s diet, and avoid all unnecessary possible trigger foods when possible. Limit the amount of red meat and seafood fed to your cat to once or twice a week.
- Rotate through three or four protein sources in your cat’s diet. It provides your cat with a broad nutritional base and reduces the risk of food sensitivities by providing lots of variety.
- Be cautious about the overuse of foods with exotic proteins like, alligator, kangaroo, buffalo ect. The greater the variety of proteins already introduced into your cat’s diet, the more difficult it will be to find a novel protein if you have fed every protein that’s currently available on the market.
- Ideally rotate one to two proteins for 3-4 months at a time versus feeding multiple proteins every day.
With all of this information you are now armed with what you need to know to help your cat who is currently suffering with food allergy issues, or prevent your cat from ever having to endure the suffering caused by these symptoms. You now have a clear defined path of how to move ahead and make the best choices for your cat. Your cat relies on you to make all decisions for them for the rest of their lives and you can now feel great about knowing you have taken the time to educate yourself on being the best kitty parent you can be!
Please note: This article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible. A raw food diet may not be appropriate for all cats in all stages of health and we always recommend having your cat examined and discussing diet changes with your veterinarian.
Keep those Hairless Kitties Healthy and Happy Everyone!!!
Text: Copyright © April Arguin RDH, Founder of LiLNudists Sphynx, Bambino, SphynxieBob, & BamBob Cattery. All rights reserved.