Does your dog or cat seem to always be itchy? Do they get ear infections or hot spots that just keep coming back? Just like you, your pet’s health is directly related to what they eat, and skin issues are often an indicator of a problem with their diet.
Treatments such as pharmaceutical medications that temporarily relieve itching generally only mask the cause of a larger problem and are often not safe for long-term use. The good news is that your pet’s skin problems may be resolved by changes to their diet. There are a few different ways to approach treating skin issues through diet that I’ll discuss in this article, and generally the best results occur when two or more of these approaches are combined.
Eliminating Wheat, Corn, Soy, Grains & By-Products
Unfortunately, most pet foods and treats you see advertised on television and that you’ll find at grocery or department stores are made from ingredients that are not only unhealthy for your pet, but indigestible. The digestive systems of dogs and cats are different than ours, and cats in particular are not able to properly digest plant matter. Many people will see major changes in their pet’s skin, coat and overall health simply by switching to a pet food that does not contain wheat, corn, or soy. Avoiding foods with grains in general may also help – especially when it comes to cats -- although grains such as rice, barley, quinoa or oats are fine for some dogs. Avoiding foods with meat by-products can also help. When making the switch to a better food, it is essential to only feed quality treats as well. Stores that specialize in pet supplies generally carry better quality foods and treats than what you’ll find at the grocery store, but it’s still a good idea to read the ingredient list – especially when it comes to treats.
Limited Ingredient Diets
If your pet is experiencing skin problems despite having eliminated corn, wheat, grains and by-products, then it may be beneficial to try a “limited ingredient diet”. A limited ingredient diet is one that restricts the number of different foods your pet consumes, so that you can you pinpoint which foods are ok for your particular pet and which ones cause problems. For instance, many dogs seem to get itchy skin when they eat chicken. Other dogs that have yeast problems or ear infections will typically benefit from a potato-free diet since starchy foods exacerbate yeast.
A limited ingredient pet food formula has a short ingredient list and typically only contains one type of meat. Your pet may be allergic or sensitive to a certain type of meat or other ingredient, even if they have been eating that particular food most of their life and have never had a problem before. In fact, it seems that overexposure to a particular food may actually cause a pet to develop a sensitivity or allergy. Because of this, many limited ingredient formulas contain what are referred to as “novel proteins”, which are types of meat that are less commonly used in pet foods and therefore less likely to be allergy-inducing for the average pet. Examples of novel proteins include bison, venison, rabbit, alligator and kangaroo.
It typically takes at least two to six weeks of trying out a new diet to determine whether it helps alleviate skin problems or whether it’s time to try something else. Don’t give up if results aren’t immediate. It is also important to either avoid treats and chews during food trial periods, or choose single-ingredient treats and chews which are the same protein type as the food you have selected. There are a number of pet foods that are labeled as “limited ingredient” to help make it easy for pet parents. Many freeze dried treats are single ingredient even though they may not be labeled “limited ingredient”.
Once you determine whether there are certain foods that cause a reaction in your pet, you will know what to look for and avoid, and can gradually begin branching back out to incorporate a more varied diet.
Rotation is Key
This brings us to our next related topic – the importance of a “rotational diet”. Ideally, it is recommended by vets and animal nutritionists to include several different protein sources in your pet’s diet, and to avoid feeding one single type of protein for an extended period of time. Once you know which proteins are ok for your particular pet to eat, you should rotate among them if possible. For instance, if you always buy a certain brand of food, get a different flavor of that brand each time you buy a new bag. If your pet has a sensitive digestive system, mix the two flavors together as you transition from one to the next, and try temporarily adding plain canned pumpkin or probiotics (available at Petapoluza and most other pet food stores).
Including a few different types of proteins in your pet’s diet is important for two primary reasons. One is that staying on the same type of protein for too long may result in an overexposure and thus allergy symptoms in response to that protein. Additionally, incorporating a variety of proteins in your pet’s diet helps to mimic how your pet would eat if they lived in the wild – resulting in a more nutritionally balanced diet.
Biologically Appropriate Diets & The Importance of Digestive Enzymes
If your dog lived in the wild, their diet would be the same as that of their relatives and ancestors: a diet composed primarily of raw meat, with little or no vegetation. When it comes to cats, they would be eating a diet composed entirely of raw meat. Only in the last century have pets been eating commercially-produced, cooked, and highly processed dry and canned foods.
Raw food contains naturally-occurring digestive enzymes which are essential for digestion, nutrient absorption and your pet’s overall health. The cooking process required to produce canned and dry foods destroys these essential digestive enzymes. As a result, many pets on even the best quality dry or canned food diets suffer from health issues as their internal organs over-work in an attempt to digest and absorb nutrients from enzyme-deficient food. The visible signs of this are often skin and digestive issues. Even pets that appear to do fine on dry or canned food diets are still struggling internally to process the food and absorb nutrients, and may develop major health problems down the road. Cats in particular often develop urinary tract infections, urinary crystals, kidney issues and other health problems due to dry food diets that lack the moisture content they biologically need. Skin issues in dogs and cats as well as runny eyes are frequently signs of a larger overall problem directly related to the quality of a pet’s diet and whether or not their diet contains digestive enzymes.
In order to make sure your pet is getting the digestive enzymes they require to absorb nutrients and maintain optimal health, we recommend a raw food diet. Most raw, freeze dried and air dried diets also have limited ingredients by default and are much less likely to contain ingredients which may trigger skin issues.
A number of commercially-produced, nutritionally-balanced raw meat diets are available for dogs and cats at pet supply stores such as Petapoluza. Most brands come in a variety of flavors and sizes and are easy to serve. It’s important to note that some pets, especially cats, may not readily eat raw foods when they are first presented, although many end up preferring it over other kinds of food once they get used to it. For tips on how to introduce raw food to your pet, check out these links:
Transitioning Cats to Raw Food
Transitioning Dogs or Cats to Raw Food
A great way to get your pet to try raw food is to start with freeze dried raw dog or cat food, which you rehydrate with water or sprinkle on top of your pet’s usual food. Freeze dried foods are very palatable and taste similar to freeze dried treats your pet likely already eats.
Some people also make their own raw pet foods at home, but if you do so, it’s essential that you research the necessary nutritional content and essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids required for your pet’s health.
If for some reason raw or freeze dried foods do not work for you and your pet, we recommend selecting the best quality air-dried, dehydrated, canned or dry food that you are able to feed -- and then adding digestive enzymes in the form of a supplement. Digestive enzymes come in several forms, including a powder that can be sprinkled on top of your pet’s food. We also highly recommend adding raw fermented goat’s milk by Answers Pet Food to your dog or cat’s food as a raw food supplement that is full of probiotics and digestive enzymes. Adding Answer’s Raw Goat’s Milk to food on a daily basis is an excellent solution for pets with itchy skin, allergies and yeast in general because of the probiotic and caprylic acid content. Raw goat’s milk and other forms of digestive enzymes are available at Petapoluza and many other specialty pet food stores.
Hope for Pets with Chronic Skin Problems
If you feed your pet a better quality diet, you are likely to see improvements in their skin, coat and overall health. Limited ingredient diets can help pinpoint problem foods for your pet, and rotating between different proteins that work for your pet can help prevent them from developing allergic symptoms. Feeding raw food or adding digestive enzymes to your pet’s food can also help tremendously in most cases of chronic itchy skin or other skin problems.
For more information, stop in at Petapoluza!