Food Allergies

Your pet’s ears are all red. His skin is itchy. If it’s really bad, the fur is coming out. Classic signs of one of the most frustrating conditions a pet owner can encounter: allergies.

The tricky thing about allergies is that they could be triggered by anything. Triggers are generally broken down into three categories: environmental (grass, pollen, household cleaners), dietary (what your pet eats), or infestations (allergies to fleas, for instance). Your vet can run tests, but they’re not always conclusive. Sadly, the only real way to identify what’s triggering the reaction is to eliminate every potential allergen, one by one, until you hit the one that was irritating your pet.

For food allergies, this means droppping whatever food your pet was eating before. Since most commercial kibbles and canned foods contain an extremely long list of ingredients, and your pet may be allergic to any one of them, your best bet is to choose a dish with a short list of ingredients your pet has never been exposed to before. A simple example:

  • lamb
  • sweet potatoes
  • brown rice

Other exotic protein sources include elk, kangaroo, emu, rabbit, etc. These can be found at natural pet boutiques, either in kibbles and cans, or even better, frozen raw. If you try your pet on the new food and he can eat without itching, congratulations! But you’re not done yet.

An allergy is basically your pet’s immune system derailed—it’s decided to identify a harmelss substance as a threat, then goes into overdrive trying to remove the substance from the body.

But the immune system generally tags a substance as harmful when it’s been overexposed to that substance. So what does this mean about your new emu diet? Simply that if you keep feeding emu every day, your pet stands a good chance of developing an allergy to emu. And then you’re right back where you started.

That’s why experimenting with new foods is even more important for pets with allergies than for healthy furkids.

The good news? If your pet was allergic to chicken a few years ago, and hasn’t had chicken since, there’s a chance you may be able to eventually reintroduce it. Why? Your pet’s body is no longer drowning in chicken. His immune system has had a break. It doesn’t need to keep screaming, “No more chicken!”

And one more tip: the most common food allergen is actually grain. The reason is simple. Stroll down the grocery store aisle and read the first ingredient on every bag of pet food. It’ll usually be a grain product. Compounding the problem, the canine and feline digestive systems aren’t really constructed to make any use of grains. Our pets have been swimming in grains, and they’ve had enough.

Often times, a grain-free, fresh-food diet is all it takes to clear up that frustrating food allergy.

Your Pet Is Not Made of Glass

IMAG0010 (640x480)By now, I’ve read the writings of enough pet nutritionists to draw a broad generalization about all pet diet theories: No two agree.

When I first embarked on homemade pet food, I was bewildered by all the conflicting nutrition information—and terrified that any slip-up might damage my beloved pet.

But I eventually realized that all these conflicting theories had one thing in common: every nutritionist, whatever their particular food theory, could draw long lists of pets who had thrived, overcome illness, and extended their lifespans on their particular diet.

Thus I developed my own theory: The differences between pet nutrition theories are merely nuances; the key is fresh, real food.

My goal, then, is not to follow any “scientifically perfect” canine diet—it’s to land on the diet that produces optimum health for my dog. As such, Molly and I experiment freely, and note how certain foods or preparation methods work for her.

One thing I will note: My very first forays into homemade pet food began with my precious cat Angus when she (yes, she) was dying of kidney failure. This is the same way many pet owners stumble into fresh foods for their pets. In a situation like this, maybe your pet is made a bit more of glass—but more importantly, so are you.

  • First, condition-specific diets can be really useful; many health conditions can be greatly helped by providing your pet’s body with the particular nutrients it really needs to fight off the disease.
  • Second, depending on the condition and how far it’s progressed (usually quite far by the time people turn to fresh foods in desperation), you may not have enough time left to leisurely experiment with your pet’s diet.
  • Third, and most important, when you’re stressing out over your pet’s prognosis, it’s too much burden to add the stress of figuring out your pet’s diet from scratch.

So in this situation, for your peace of mind, if nothing else, I would encourage a pet owner to find a condition-specific diet by an experienced nutritionist and simply follow it to the letter. You can rest assured, it produced good results for this nutritionist and his or her clients. Your cat or dog, therefore, will benefit as well.

But if your pet is already in good general healthdon’t sweat over balancing every little nutrient. She drinks out of mud puddles, for goodness sake!

What’s in a Carb?

Baked Molly a pawsitively delicious pork roast the other night:

  • four pounds boneless pork roast
  • one carrot
  • one stalk celery
  • about two inches of water in the bottom of the roasting pan

Looked just like any ol’ roast, except for one thing—talk about going light on the veggies! I typically use veggies sparingly in Molly’s meals, and don’t use grains at all. Why?

There’s a hot debate going over whether carbohydrates—better known as grains, veggies, and fruits—have a place in the dog or cat’s diet. The reasons for including them:

  • they keep costs low (plant foods cost less than meat)
  • they make it possible to produce convenient dry kibble (this applies to grains in particular)
  • they contain vitamins and minerals
  • they provide fiber, which can help keep your pet regular

Sounds dandy, right? But interestingly, the National Research Council, the organization in charge of setting nutritional requirements for pet food, lists no minimum requirement for carbohydrates for cats or dogs. Why? Because cats and dogs don’t require carbohydrates to maintain life. There are plenty of people feeding their pets meat only, and their pets are thriving.

In fact, Molly and I have experimented with a purely meat diet. For vitamins and minerals, I included two ingredients, organ meats (go figure—who’da thought organ meats are bursting with vitamins and minerals?) and sea vegetables (which are super-bursting with vitamins and minerals and very easy for pets to digest). Molly did quite well on this meal plan.

We’ve also tried a ratio of 50% meat, 50% veggies—the other extreme. Her coat went dull and she had eye discharge—two simple signs that a dog isn’t thriving on her diet.

Hence the new experiment—just a tad of veggies, primarily for the vitamin, mineral, and fiber benefits, plus a bit of organ meat and sea vegetables to make sure her vitamin and mineral needs are covered.

Keep in mind—a dog or cat has to work harder to process carbohydrates. Simply put, their digestive systems are maximized to process protein, not carbohydrates. So I always take two simple steps to help Molly derive any benefits from her carbohydrates:

  • If I serve her veggies cooked, I make sure they’re nice and soft
  • If I serve her veggies raw, I make sure they’re chopped small

It’s really easy to tell if I didn’t make her veggies easy enough to digest, or if I gave her too much—I can identify the veggie again in her stool!

What about you? How do you feel about plant foods in pet foods?

Mangoes and Peaches

I gently squeeze the peaches in the bowl on the counter, looking for that perfect ripeness. One of them suits my fancy. I rinse it in the sink, the water droplets sticking to the peach fuzz before they tumble down.

Molly trots over. Any activity that takes place in the kitchen requires her immediate supervision. You never know. I may be frying chicken or baking meatloaf.

I smile and let her sniff the peach, knowing she won’t like it. To my surprise, instead of a disappointed, “Oh. Fruit,” she gives me her best, “Please, please, please, won’t you share some with me?”

I’m surprised. I ignore her and bite into my peach, then look back over my shoulder.


I toss her a bite. She catches it mid-air and chomps it down. “Is that all I get?”

I toss her another bite, waiting for her to realize her mistake and spit it out. Instead, I make a new discovery: In addition to raw radishes, steamed kale stems, and the occasional blueberry, my dog likes peaches. But the jury’s still out on mangoes. I think she finds the texture funny.

I’m always looking for something new to throw into the food dish or serve as a treat. Trying new foods is all a part of our culinary adventure—and not just new meats, but new veggies too, and yes, even a little fruit. The effort is small, but the reasons are important:

  • If a pet eats the same thing every day, she could develop an allergy
  • As with human diets, variety is the best way to provide all the nutrients a pet’s body needs
  • It’s fun! Molly’s eyes light up when she gets something new, and she eats it with gusto

In large part, my dedication to variety is married to my rebellion against the conventional system–the same brand and flavor of kibble or canned food every day of a pet’s life. I wouldn’t like to eat that way. In fact, if I don’t pull out the cook book often enough or stroll down a different aisle of the grocery store now and again, my body gets lethargic and I don’t feel satisfied at meal times.

I see the same thing with Molly–particularly still being hungry after meals–if she hasn’t had something new in a while. Maybe it’s as simple as baking her dinner instead of frying it. Maybe it means going wild and buying that dehydrated lamb lung treat.

And maybe it means listening to your dog when she says she wants to try some of your peach.