Summer 2013 Magazine

Casa Canine

Daisy's Sensitive Stomach:
Gluten Intolerance in Dogs?

By Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Imagine your happy, healthy 4-year old dog starts losing weight. She develops stomach problems with increased vomiting and diarrhea. Your playful young dog becomes lethargic, her appetite decreases and she loses almost half of her body weight. No obvious cause for the symptoms is apparent. The final diagnosis is cancer. You are sent home with your precious companion and told to keep her comfortable in the time she has left. And you do. You decide to prepare homemade doggy comfort food that may appeal to her diminished appetite. You begin with homemade boiled chicken and rice. She begins to eat. You keep up the rice and chicken diet. A month goes by, and turns into two months, then nine months. She gains weight and you begin to hope that she is actually getting better. It seems like a miracle.

This is exactly what happened six years ago to Daisy, a Soft-coated Wheaten terrier. Daisy's person, Beth Koenig, tells me with great joy that Daisy reached a milestone birthday this month, her 10th! So what was the miracle in Beth's chicken and rice? It seems that Daisy's body cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in grains. And in Beth's homemade chicken and rice there was no gluten. Without the offending protein, Daisy began to recover.

Beth's story about Daisy caught my interest immediately. I am a celiac in a family of three generations of celiacs. Celiac is a genetic disorder where the body is unable to tolerate gluten. Gluten is a certain type of protein (gliadin) found in wheat, rye and barley. The symptoms of the disease vary but usually present as severe gastrointestinal problems like vomiting, diarrhea and excessive gas that are not ameliorated by normal treatments for temporary gastrointestinal distress. In celiacs, the villi of the upper intestines atrophy in response to the gluten and, if continually included in the diet, gluten causes malnutrition and many related health problems. Gluten intolerance was once thought to be a rare disorder. But according to the NIH Digestive Diseases Clearing House, the frequency of gluten intolerance among Americans is approximately 1 out of every 133 people! Until I met Daisy, I had always thought this a human condition.

Just how extensive gluten intolerance is in the canine population is unknown. In humans a definitive diagnosis includes a blood test followed by a biopsy of the villi in the upper intestine. The diagnosis is further confirmed by rapid improvement of symptoms on a gluten free diet. Irish setters are the one breed to date that are confirmed through the rigors of testing to be prone to celiac. There is a great deal of speculation that many more types of dogs are intolerant to gluten.

What does this mean to your dog? Chronic diarrhea and gas that cannot be cured by standard medical treatment warrants further investigation. If you and your vet have tried everything without success, consider the possibility of gluten intolerance. Definitive testing via endoscopy can help you be certain that gluten is the offending food. Gluten is ubiquitous. It's found in almost everything including most dog foods. The treatment is simple - the elimination of gluten from your dog's diet. Your dog can lead a full and happy life as long as you make sure that everything your dog eats is gluten free for the rest of her life. That includes all treats and table scraps as well as your dog food. You need to start reading labels on every product you give your dog to ingest, including biscuits, chew sticks and rawhide which may be marinated in gluten-containing brines for added flavor. For example, there are many teriyaki flavored dogs treats on the market. Most soy sauces contain wheat!

In response to the increasing concern regarding gluten intolerance in dogs, the dog food market has moved at warp speed. Walk down the dog food aisle and you will see many products labeled gluten free. This is part of a trend to reduce products in dog food that are not naturally part of the diet of our dogs' ancestral canines. Along with the gluten-containing grains of wheat, rye and barley, other products such as dairy, soy and corn are also disappearing from many specialty dog foods. These are foods known to frequently cause allergies in dogs. Dog foods that contain proteins that are novel for dogs like duck and salmon are now commonly sold. The argument is that the allergenic foods were not and are not the foods eaten by wild canines. As part of their domestication, living with humans has meant that dogs are fed many of these products because people use and eat them. But the gastrointestinal systems of dogs have not adequately changed to digest these foods.

As more research uncovers the extent of gluten intolerance in dogs, the better we humans can be as caretakers of our companions. Knowing that it exists within the canine population can aid in future diagnoses, helping you provide your dog with the best possible nutrition for a long and healthy life.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is a writer and columnist for PETroglyphs and an author of children's books about dogs. She lives with her husband and her two canine companions, Gus and Hazel.

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