The role of the immune system is to keep infectious microorganisms, such as certain bacteria, viruses, and fungi, out of the body, and to destroy any infectious microorganisms that do invade the body. Allergies are the result of an inappropriate response to a harmless substance (such as a type of food, pollen etc). In an allergic animal, the immune system overreacts to the substance and mounts an immune response against it.
Food allergies in cats
Also known as cutaneous adverse food reaction, food allergies are the third most common type of allergy in cats (behindflea allergyandinhalant allergy). The most common causes of food allergies are fish, beef, chicken, eggs, and wheat. Cats become allergic to foods they have eaten for a long period of time (usually two years or more). There is no breed, sex or age predilection. Cats with other allergies (such as inhalant) may be at greater risk of developing food allergies. There appears to be a genetic component.
Symptoms of food allergies occur over a period of months and can include:
There is no blood test to diagnose food allergies. Your veterinarian will need to rule out other common disorders which have similar symptoms (such as flea allergy dermatitis, inhalant allergy, ringworm, mange).
Once these have been ruled out, he will place your cat on a food elimination trial. This usually lasts between 8-12 weeks. During this time, you must not give your cat any other foods, treats, vitamins, minerals or chewable medications apart from the prescribed diet. If any other foods or vitamins are given during this trial it will invalidate the results. If the allergy clears up after the specified time then a food allergy is the likely cause. The diet given to your cat during the trial will be food the cat has never had before such as rabbit, duck or venison. The diet may be homemade or a special ‘prescription’ diet.
Hypoallergenic diets contain hydrolyzed protein which involves breaking down the protein into individual amino acids that are too small for the immune system to detect (and react to). Commercial hydrolyzed protein diets include Hills z/d and Royal Canin Hypoallergenic. Food elimination diets must contain only one protein and one carbohydrate.
After the food trial, you will challenge the cat by re-introducing their usual diet to see if the allergy returns. If there is no reduction in symptoms after 2-3 months on the food trial other causes will need to be investigated.
Avoid food that caused allergies, by switching to a homemade diet using novel ingredients (such as kangaroo) or the use of a commercial hypoallergenic one. If you are feeding a homemade diet it is important to ensure that your cat is receiving the correct nutrients in the diet.
Corticosteroids to control itching. Unfortunately, not all cats will respond to this treatment.
Antibiotics to treat skin infections caused by itching.
If you have decided to feed your cat a homemade diet, you may choose at times to introduce novel meat (such as kangaroo or goat) and see how your cat reacts to it. For example, you have your cat on a diet of kangaroo meat and the allergies go away, introduce beef and watch for a reaction. If there are no signs of allergies over a few weeks you know you can feed him this, introduce lamb, watch for signs of allergies returning etc. This way, you can slowly increase the type of food your cat can eat.
Occasionally new food allergies develop over time, if this happens then it will be necessary to re-evaluate the new diet.
Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs.
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