Food Allergies and Food Intolerance in Cats


Cats tend to develop food allergies to a familiar food and these can be part of multiple allergies. Food intolerances tend to be to new foods and are usually present from birth, but can occur later in the cat’s development. As far as an owner is concerned, the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment are similar.

Common symptoms of food allergy or food intolerance include chronic vomiting, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhoea, failure to gain weight or weight loss, poor or dull coat, lack of energy. Less commonly food allergies may express themselves in a cat’s skin. The hallmark of a skin allergy is itchiness, although some cats rarely scratch or lick in front of their owners. Fur balls or hairs around the tongue, teeth or house may be signs of excessive licking. Some cats will appear to go bald, although the hairs are really being broken off by licking. Crusting and ulcers around the head and neck may suggest food allergies. Some cats develop large red, moist and weeping sores (called eosinophilic plaques), on the belly and legs.

Your vet will want to rule out other possibilities like dietary upsets, internal parasites, infections, metabolic diseases of the kidney, liver and pancreas, and, in older cats, various cancers. Cats will also overgroom their skin if there is an area where they are in pain.
If the cat has skin symptoms, the vet must rule out parasites such as fleas, lice and mites. Rigorous flea control will be necessary using products from your veterinary surgeon on the cat. Over the counter flea preparations are not strong enough. Eggs and larvae in carpets and furnishings should also be treated with sprays containing both an insecticide and growth inhibitor. All animals in the household must be treated.

Your vet will recommend a trial diet using foods new to your cat. Prescription hypoallergenic diets are available from your vet and are easiest. (Some vets recommend home cooked diets using a single protein (e.g. meat or fish) and carbohydrate (e.g. rice or potatoes) with water to drink – ask the vet for details. Do not just do this off your own bat. You could get it badly wrong.)  Organic diets or diets with no additives – good though they may be for some cats – are not going to be any use as a test for food intolerance. Nor will changing brand do the trick. Ordinary cat-foods contain a variety of ingredients that vary from batch to batch and are not suitable.
Trial diets should be fed for six weeks. Cats should not be fed anything else during the trial. Cats that hunt or are fed elsewhere may need to be kept indoors.
Allergic diseases will wax and wane, so an improvement after six weeks does not necessarily mean the cat has food allergy. You have to test by going back to the original diet. A relapse within 1-2 weeks on the original diet confirms a food allergy. Once the cat is stable again on the trial diet, introduce ingredients such as beef, lamb, dairy products etc. one at a time to discover which the cat reacts to. These can then be avoided.
Alternatively, just feed a commercial hypoallergenic diet can be tried. Sometimes this process is short circuited, and after feeding the exclusion diet, the owner is helped to try out different commercial diets with varying ingredients to see if one can be fed without causing the allergy. Blood tests are available which detect antibodies in the blood but do not replace the need for a proper food trial. Antibodies only appear if there is a definite allergy and cannot detect a food intolerance.

If the food trials identify the food ingredients, which are making your cat ill, then your vet will help you choose a diet which excludes these ingredients. You will need to keep your cat on this diet for the rest of its life. If your cat is a dustbin scrounger, you will have to decide whether it is necessary to make it into an indoor cat.

If the symptoms do not clear up after food trials, it is usually a good idea to ask your vet to refer you to a veterinary specialist. This is the same principle as a GP referring a patient to a consultant. Most vets will be happy to do so and indeed cannot refuse to do so. There are inflammatory and other bowel conditions which can trigger a food allergy. These can be diagnosed by endoscopic investigations and biopsies. A vet who specialises in gastro-enterology or internal medicine will have the equipment and expertise to do these investigations.
If the symptoms are mainly on the skin, then a veterinary skin specialist can help. It may be that there are factors, other than just food allergy, which are triggering the skin disorder.

Allergy testing. TLC Pet Allergy Testing

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