Her name is Tonya and she's a 7-y-o Black Lab with a sweet disposition. She's one of those Labs who, if no one was around and the opportunity presented itself, would happily eat an entire 30-lb bag of dog food, or a half-dozen donuts, or a whole pan of brownies. She simply LOVES food. Unfortunately, food does NOT love Miss Tonya. Her food allergies are multiple and strange. Because she had a puppyhood filled with ear infections, hot spots, paw licking, fur scratching and Prednisone, we took the plunge years ago and had her allergy-tested, to the tune of about $400.00. You'd think life since then would have been somewhat simpler: avoid the foods she's allergic to and all will be well. Not so.
In addition to her food allergies, Tonya also has some allergies to environmental stuff like grasses, flowers, trees, etc. We'll get to that later. Her list of food allergies is curious and surprising. For instance, she's allergic to turkey and duck, but not chicken. She can't have most grains. She must avoid peas. Peas?! We must check and re-check the ingredients list when we give her ANYTHING at all to eat. Food companies are always being bought and sold and their recipes evolve and change over time, without the consumer being notified. One day, no peas. The next day, peas in the same food!
And then there are treats. Everywhere you go these days, well-meaning folks want to give your dog a biscuit or treat. At the bank, pet supply store, hardware store and the vet's office (mine offers Milkbones, of ALL things!), Tonya is offered a treat. The look on people's faces when I lunge for their hand as they reach for Tonya's mouth with a biscuit in their clutch is sometimes horrifying. They look at me like I'm a psycho-dog-mother. In a way, I am. That biscuit could keep my dog up all night itching or set off an ear infection that will require a vet visit and antibiotics. And...Tonya will eat ANYTHING. This does not make my job any easier.
This spring, Tonya has been really, REALLY itchy -- to the point where she's itched her fur off in several locations. Her eyes are runny and swollen. She's got scabs all over her body where she's drawn blood from her itching. The vet put her on a prescription anti-histamine. We were advised that sometimes, after being on a certain food for a while, a dog with allergies can develop new allergies to their current food. We were reminded that raw beef bones are bad, as is rawhide, for a dog with allergies. So...what's she supposed to chew on, a frozen carrot? Poor baby!
If your dog is showing signs of food allergies and you're not yet at the point where you're ready to invest in allergy testing, the smart thing to do would be to eliminate the most common allergens, starting your dog on a food that has NONE of them. Chicken and beef (due in large part due to the hormones and antibiotics in cheap meat), corn, wheat, soy and dairy are often the foods dogs are allergic to. Lesser-bought protein sources like fish, venison, buffalo, etc. are generally "safer" proteins for allergic dogs. Removing ALL grains from the diet is also advisable. Treats, bones, rawhides and other chews should also be removed from the diet. Ingredients in some supplements and vitamin tablets can also set off an allergic dog. Once your dog's allergic reactions have subsided, you can always test an item by reintroducing it to see whether your dog has issues with it. Keeping a food diary is also a good idea. This way, you'll have a record of food brands, treats and whole foods that your dog has had bad reactions to and what those reactions were.
As I mentioned, Tonya also has some allergies to plants, grasses, etc. So, the vet suggested that it might not be food at all that is bothering her currently. It could be spring allergies. That made a lot of sense to us, as she'd been pretty comfortable through the winter on her grain-free, salmon-based food. Of course, Tonya likes nothing better than to rub her itchy face and body in the fresh grass. She literally grinds and drags her chin and cheeks through it any chance she gets. Dogs with allergies shouldn't be bathed often, as this strips their skin of essential oils which are actually helpful. We were advised to take her to the ocean for a swim weekly and to rinse her with the hose or let her air dry. The salt water helps her skin lesions and scabs to heal and is soothes the itch a bit. We also brush her daily with a few different brushes to keep her skin cells shedding and rejuvinating and her tendency to scratch her fur off to a minimum. This seems to help a bit.
Tonya has been uncomfortable and itchy for several weeks now, and has been on a daily regimen of both OTC and prescription antihistamines which provide only slight relief. On the up-side, she's lost 8 pounds this year and looks healthy and fit, other than having a patchy looking coat. If you have a dog with allergies, know that the path is crooked, uphill and strewn with boulders, but help IS available in many forms. For us, next steps include considering home-cooked meals and seeking the advice of a holistic vet.