What's in Your Dog Food?
Rupert was a border collie with a sweet disposition, the kind of dog who captures your heart. “He wanted nothing more than to be with me,” says owner Nancy Kerns. Kerns had adopted Rupert as a puppy from a sheep farm. From the start, the dog showed plenty of intelligence and affection — and he did plenty of scratching, which Kerns ultimately traced to a flea sensitivity.
“If he got so much as a single bite, he would chew and scratch himself into a bloody mess,” she says. So she made certain his environment was free of the insects, resorting to occasional topical “spot” treatment (“I’m not a big fan of using pesticides -- but they work”).
That slowed the scratching down but even with no trace of fleas, Rupert continued to suffer from episodes of intense itching. And then there were his ears.
“They would get smelly, goopy and inflamed. He’d walk around with his head tipped, obviously distressed,” says Kerns. The vet diagnosed an ear infection and Kerns faithfully treated the dog with prescribed medicines. That cleared up the infection but it would return after a few months.
It was during this time that Kerns began wondering about Rupert’s diet. Could he be allergic to something in his dog food? So she switched brands. The scratching and intermittent ear infections continued. She tried another brand. She took the dog to a different vet and then to another.
Finally, Kerns ran into a holistic vet who suggested she try an elimination diet—feed Rupert one novel protein and one novel grain, two foods he had never eaten before. So she decided to put Rupert on a diet of ground buffalo meat and quinoa. Over the next several days, the dog wolfed the food down and the scratching abated.
“It worked!” Kerns says. “Yes, buying fresh buffalo meat for a 50-pound dog was wicked expensive. Nevertheless, it was a breakthrough.”
As she slowly began adding new foods back into Rupert’s diet, one at a time, the culprit became clear. Rupert was allergic to chicken.
“When I reintroduced chicken, he immediately reacted with itching. So I started thinking back to all the foods I’d given him. I must have tried ten or 12 different commercial brands and every single one of them had chicken in it.”
Chicken, chicken meal, chicken fat, chicken byproducts. Although sometimes way down on the ingredient list, it was there nonetheless. At one vet’s advice, Rupert had even been on a raw diet — consisting mostly of, yes, chicken.
“It taught me to take a dog’s diet into consideration every time he has a health issue. It also taught me the absolute necessity of maintaining a health journal for your pet.”
Kerns recommends that owners keep a diary for their dog, tracking diet and symptoms. Cut the ingredient label from the food bag and tape it in a notebook, jotting down the brand name and the date the bag is opened.
“Do this with each bag you buy. You never know when a manufacturer will modify ingredients,” Kerns advises. “Owners should also log any symptoms, like itchiness, bowel problems or changes in behavior or appearance, and the date they’re observed. That way, it’s possible to correlate health issues with food ingredients or even seasonal allergies.”
The notebook is a valuable history for you and your vet should there ever be problems. “Owners can also document vaccinations and any accompanying reactions. They can jot down any other changes that may affect their pet, such as new wax on the kitchen floor or when the dog is kenneled,” Kerns says.
With Rupert’s allergy mystery solved, Kerns fed him a chicken-free dog food for the rest of his life. His final years were symptom free.
“His old age was comfortable,” Kerns says. “I really encourage people to save those ingredient labels. Even if there’s no problem yet, they should be tracking ingredients.”