Down the Allergy Rabbit-HoleBy Jennifer Stoeckl, MAT - Dire Wolf Project CEO, Sept. 10, 2021
Strongbred dog breeders are dedicated to breeding healthy, long-lived dogs, which requires a completely open and honest channel of communication between owners and breeders. However, breeders can only help when owners speak up about their dog's health.
We get it. Veterinarian medical doctors have gone through over ten years of medical training to become certified veterinarians and so it is easy to put all of your trust in their judgement and expertise, especially if they have been in the medical practice for years. Typically, dog breeders are seen as less than knowledgeable about anything medical. After all, anyone can say they are a breeder if they allow a male and female pair to produce puppies.
Strongbred dog breeders are of a different sort, however. The breeders behind the Dire Wolf Project have dedicated over fifty years of serious study to not only the genetics surrounding dog breeding but also intimately know every dog bred within the Dire Wolf Project, their health and temperament issues, as well as archive a wealth of owner feedback throughout the 35 years the American Alsatian dog breed has existed. This information is invaluable and something a general practicing veterinarian cannot give you.
One such example of this in action is a recent case where an American Alsatian dog owner wrote with questions regarding their dog's coat and how it looked like little scales of skin were peeling off their dog's back. The owners had already gone to the veterinarian's office several times, only to be told their dog had allergies and was likely allergic to everything in its environment. The owners, rightly concerned about the deteriorating health of their beautiful dog, bought the vet's recommended dog food specially tailored to dogs with allergies, special shampoos and conditioners, altered the environment, purchased allergy medication and went through numerous vet exams to determine the extent of the allergy difficulties.
The owners sent pictures of the dog to the breeder and kept the breeder in the loop about how the dog was doing. However, it wasn't until the owners' mother shared her observations that it became clear to the breeder that this American Alsatian dog was likely not suffering from allergies, but may, instead, be showing severe signs of hypothyroidism, an easily curable disease with much lower involved costs.
Today's blog post aims to highlight the trouble that caring owners and unknowing vets can get into by first going down the expensive and frustrating allergy rabbit-hole instead of quickly ruling out other well-known diseases that manifest similarly and how important it is to share openly with your breeder any health concerns you have with your dog.
The Cheshire Cat in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland brilliantly describes how it feels to be caught in the cycle of madness that lingers when an owner tries to figure out how to help a dog suffering from itchy skin and hair loss. It is a maddening feeling to be in this nightmarish allergy cycle.
“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
— Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: Chapter 6, Pig and Pepper
10 Tasks To Determine If Your Dog Has Allergies
If your American Alsatian Dog has shown allergy symptoms, such as dry, flaky skin, significant hair loss, itchy feet or back and your vet talks about allergies, please first consider these easily eliminated health issues before leaping headfirst into the allergy rabbit hole. Once you close your eyes, tumble down the hole, and plummet aimlessly down and down, you will find yourself in a strange and unknown world of expensive tinctures, and you will not know which one to take. Money will soar from your wallet like a rocking-horse fly. These simple steps could save thousands of dollars and help you more clearly determine if your dog has a simple issue or a more complex allergy one.
- Take in a stool sample to your vet. Make sure they specifically send the sample off to a testing facility and not simply take the sample in the back to look at it under the microscope. You want to test for as many parasites as possible and not all parasites are easily identified. That is why third-party testing facilities exist. They are specifically trained to identify hundreds of different parasites. Be specific. Ask them to test for tape worm, round worm, giardiasis, coccidiosis, whipworms, hookworms, and spirochetes (non-worm parasites). Many vets will not see worm larva in the stool and will assume they do not have worms. They cannot diagnose a dog with parasites unless they can see them. However, that does NOT mean your dog does not have worms or other parasites. It simply means that your vet did not see them. That is why it is important to have the stool sent off to a third-party testing facility that specializes in stool analysis. If no parasites are present in the stool sample, wait two weeks and send in ANOTHER stool sample to the vet to be tested. This is because worms and parasites must go through life cycles and they do not always leave the intestines and enter the bowel to be eliminated. Remember: a vet can only diagnose a dog he/she sees an issue. Again, have this second sample sent to the lab for analysis to be sure every parasite has been eliminated as a possibility. If your dog has any type of parasite, treat it before moving to the next step. If you have two negative stool sample tests, then move to the next step.
- Get a full-panel blood test including T3 and T4 scores. You want to see what is going on and your dog's blood will tell you a great deal in a very short amount of time. If, perchance, your dog has hypothyroidism, you will catch it early and avoid many of the severe symptoms that come from a low thyroid production. (weight gain, lethargy, skin hardening, blackened pigmentation, extreme hair loss, and foggy minds) If it isn’t hypothyroidism, you will have a baseline blood test for your dog should any medical concern occur in the future. If your dog has hypothyroidism to any degree, do not hesitate. Get the recommended medication (usually levothyroxine) right away. This medication will probably clear up all allergy symptoms you may have noticed. However, if your dog is normal on the thyroid blood test in both the T3 and T4 areas but remains under 2.5 years old, you can move on to the next step for now, but you will need to return to this step when your dog is at least 2.5 years old and is still dealing with any of the hypothyroidism symptoms (as above).
- If you have ruled out both parasites and hypothyroidism, you can now peer into the allergy rabbit hole. But I caution you NOT to jump in with both feet just yet.
- Take your dog off of all dry kibble and feed one species raw food ONLY. Nothing else. No extra training treats. No scraps from the table. Nothing else should go into your dog's mouth. I recommend raw whole chicken ONLY (bones and internal organs included) for one entire week to start. This is because you want to eliminate food issues first. It is the most problematic issue and if you can tackle it first, you can get it out of the way. If you notice consistent loose or runny stool, stop feeding raw chicken and jump down to the next step down the rabbit hole.
Notice that I did NOT say to go to your vet. You do NOT need to get your vet's approval to change your dog's diet. In this way, you will automatically eliminate any food-based issues right off the bat without spending thousands on new kibble, trying this expensive bag and then this other expensive bag. If you follow the recommended allergy-based kibble from your vet, you have jumped into the rabbit hole with both feet and it will be much harder to pull you back out.
- You are now ready to switch to raw beef ONLY for one week. Nothing else. No more chicken and as before, nothing else should go into your dog's mouth. I recommend raw brisket for the cheapest choice, but you can feed raw bones, including the marrow and tripe. Feed beef for one week unless you see an immediate loose, watery stool. If you see this loose, watery stool for over three days, stop feeding beef and jump to the next step down the rabbit hole.
- Now you are ready to switch to raw pork ONLY (bones included) for one week. There was a time, long ago, when people fed pigs literally everything–dead animals, garbage, etc. This practice sometimes produced a toxin in the pig's bodies called trichinosis. Since pigs don’t sweat, their bodies cannot expel the toxins. This can lead to toxin overload and it can be transferred to whoever consumes the raw meat of an infected pig, mostly raw fed dogs. This is all in the past! Pig farming is strictly regulated today and pig farmers may NOT feed their pigs just about anything. By law, farmers must feed pigs safe, regulated animal feed, which ensures pork meat is free from toxins. One hears of far few cases of trichinosis in our modern age. However, if you still have concerns, you can freeze the pork meat for up to 3 weeks. This ensures all toxins are killed, making the meat safe for your dog to consume raw.
Feed pork for one week unless you see an immediate loose, watery stool that lasts for at least three days. If you see this, then stop feeding pork and immediately jump to the next step down the rabbit hole.
- Now you are ready to switch to cooked fish ONLY (no bones) for one week. Did you see the newly identified sea wolf species? They swim in sea water to catch fish instead of land hunting. Now let's find out if your dog has any issues with fish. Remember to cook and debone your dog's fish meal. Raw fish can carry parasites, which we want to avoid completely (see step one). You can feed your dog Salmon, steelhead trout, whitefish, flounder, herring, catfish, cod, Whiting, canned light tuna. (CAUTION: the following fish should not be included in your dog's diet: Shark, Tilefish, Swordfish, King mackerel, and canned Albacore tuna.) As above, if you see loose, watery stool for over three days, stop feeding fish and jump to the next step down the rabbit hole.
- You are now ready to add in other ingredients that you might find in commercial dog food. After a full month of jumping step-by-step down the allergy rabbit hole, you can now switch between any of the raw food you have tried that did NOT produce any loose, watery stool in your dog for over three days AND you can add in a few other ingredients into the food mixture that your dog might consume if it were to eat kibble, such as corn, brown rice, wheat (small cubes of bread or breadcrumbs), spinach, heavy cream/full fat milk, carrots, blueberries, kale, apples, cheese, raw eggs, natural peanut butter, kelp powder, bananas, cucumbers, green beans, and watermelon. Add each of these one at a time and stick with them for at least three consecutive days to see if any stool trouble happens. If you see stool trouble happen with any of these foods, cross them off of the list of items with which your dog does not do well.
- It is time to assess how your dog's health is doing, so make an appointment to see the vet and do a wellness check. Now, after two months, you should be armed with a list of foods your dog can consume without producing tummy trouble. Bring this information and all previous veterinarian information with you to the vet's office. This one small visit should only be a wellness check-up in order for your vet to see your dog, check your dog's vitals, skin irritation/dryness, and overall health. Show your veterinarian all that you have done and remind him/her you have already eliminated many factors (parasites/hypothyroidism/food allergies). If your dog continues to show allergy symptoms even after learning about your dog's nutritional needs, ask your vet about making a follow-up appointment for an allergy test. Specifically, ask what the costs involved would be for such a test. Again, do not get drawn into the rhetoric of buying this conditioner or shampoo or kibble or whatever else may be suggested. You want to know definites, not wild guesses. This is the point of actual decision for you. You must weigh the costs of jumping into the rabbit hole, or taking another informative step. Both choices are going to cost you more than you want to spend. The first will cost less initially, but way more throughout your dog's lifetime. The second will cost more initially, but much less in the long run. No one can make this decision for you because it truly depends on your finances and your conversation with your vet.
The last step is to complete an allergy test. This step is the bottom of the rabbit hole. If you take this step, you will have by-passed a myriad of other twists and turns in the descent to the bottom that could have taken you off course for a while until you figured out just where you went wrong. This option must only be taken IF your dog continues to show signs of allergies despite your best efforts above. The reason your dog must be actively engaged in allergy specific behaviors is because allergy tests can't accurately assess your dog's sensitivities to a potential allergen if inflammation effects do not exist.
There are two types of allergy tests:
a.) skin tests (~$200)
b.) blood tests (~$200-$300)
NOTE: I do not know the nature of online allergy tests, but they generally test your dog's protein levels to create a list of items to which your dog is allergic. They range from $65-$99, but do your research before you choose to purchase any of these. It may be another chunk of money that you fork over, thinking you are going to find the right answer and end up having to go back to the vet, anyway. I don't know because I cannot confirm their usage, but home allergy tests are available.
If I were in your shoes and traveled this far down into the tunnel, I would not mess around anymore and I would ask the vet to perform an allergy blood test. I would want the clearest, most accurate test available to give me definitive results and that is the blood test, in my opinion. It is sent off to a lab and analyzed by third party testers. The results return to you in a comprehensive measured list, which you can use for the life of your dog. Not only that, but if the allergy test comes back with significant allergies, you have the verifiable information that you can now send to your breeder, who will share the results with the Dire Wolf Project Health Foundation to be added to the health database. The Dire Wolf Project health database helps support other American Alsatian dogs who may be in need. We track exactly which allergens are the more common ones in our dog breed and in which lines they are being held. There is no more guesswork. You have not spent a fortune in vet/medication costs. You did not have to do several rounds of antibiotics and/or steroids just to get rid of the symptoms. You can exit the rabbit hole with the confidence you need to live a happy, healthy life with your American Alsatian dog.
Please note once again that I am not a veterinarian and do not give you this information to make claims about your dog's health or to diagnose your dog's health. You should seek professional veterinary medical advice for your dog's overall health. This information has only been provided to inform you what we would do if our own dogs showed allergy symptoms and we needed to intervene.
Jennifer Stoeckl is the co-founder of the Dire Wolf Project, founder of the DireWolf Guardians American Alsatian Dog Training Program, and owner/operator of DireWolf Dogs of Vallecito. She lives in the beautiful inland northwest among the Ponderosa pine forests with her pack of American Alsatian dogs.
Leslie Gillette, DVM. Can Dogs Eat Fish? PetMED. June 30, 2020.
BARF India.Adding Pork to Your Raw Dog Food.
Ann Wood. Pork for Dogs: When It's Good and When It's Bad. Dogs Naturally. September 9, 2020.
Michele Welton. Should Your Dog's Food Be Raw or Cooked? Pros and Cons. Your Purebred Puppy.