My Ongoing Search for the Cause of My Dog’s Allergies

After years of testing, medications, and switching between store-bought foods, I'm now making her food myself and finally finding her some relief.

Gigi Griffis  |  Mar 5th 2015


Luna has had allergies for as long as I can remember. Back in Denver, the vet took her off grains, then off chicken, onto pills, then off them. But we never quite had it under control.

Then I moved to Europe. Luna and I sunned ourselves in Spain, zipped along the beaches of southern France, hiked the Alps in Switzerland — and from time to time allergies reared their ugly heads, making her itchy or lethargic and sometimes covered in hives.

I carried Benadryl in my purse all the time. We switched her food again and again. I stopped giving her treats for a while, afraid that they were the culprit.

And finally, this year, after a year of living in the Alps — an official American expat and expat dog — the allergies reached a fever pitch, with almost daily hives, itching until she bled, and terrifying intestinal upset.

In October, I returned from a conference and rushed her to the vet, where they put her on an IV for dehydration. And that was the last straw.

We weren’t sure if the dehydration (which was a side effect of the intestinal issues) was related to the allergies or not, but I had a sneaking suspicion … and I was frustrated with all the years of trying to solve the problem but getting her no relief.

So October became the month to throw more money at the problem.

First, they did a blood test. In less than a week, the results were in. Nothing. Nada. Big fat goose egg.

The vet explained that while most allergies show up on blood tests, on the rare occasion they just don’t. Luna was this rare occasion.

The next step was a skin test. They gave her a sleeping injection, and I held her while she drifted off (this is something the Swiss do that I love: Instead of taking your dog away from you and into the back room, they have you hold her while she drifts into dreamland; “It’s nicer for her,” the vet tells me — and I 100 percent agree).

Once she was good and asleep, the vet put some drops in her eyes to keep them moist, then took two skin samples and gave her a few stitches where he’d taken the skin. He cleaned the areas and then, with her still completely passed out, the vet and I worked together to slip her into a full-body cat suit that would keep her from licking or scratching the stitches.

This was the worst part of our allergy quest because when Luna woke up, she was upset. She cried and tried to get up and felt woozy and wanted to be held. She looked at her belly, where some of the stitches were, and looked mournfully up at me.

The heartbreak of not being to explain that everything we were doing was so that she can live a better life was acute. I cried on the way home.

A week or two later, I waited anxiously for the results … only to find that they showed nothing. Again, negative. Again, a zero.

And again the vet explained that there are rare cases in which dogs do have allergies and they don’t show up on the test results. We had, he said, come full circle. Before the testing, we’d been trying to tackle her allergies with food. Now we were going to do that again — only more aggressively this time.

The vet explained that sometimes very allergic dogs develop allergies over time. So the food that used to work for her may be causing her problems now. I’d had her on grain-free, fish-based food. He suggested we move to an unusual protein and an unusual carb. Choices included things like reindeer and horse.

“Give it six weeks,” he said.

So I bought two bags and switched her to the new food.

At first, she seemed to do well. I celebrated a little. And then a few weeks into it, she started scratching again, licking her paws, and seeming generally uncomfortable.

After six weeks, with her still scratching and licking up a storm, the vet told me we had a few options. We could try another protein. We could do a raw/bone diet (which sounded complicated). Or I could make her food myself.

If I made her food myself, I would know exactly what was in it.

Honestly, that’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time anyway. I liked the idea of cooking for her. I liked the idea of knowing exactly what she was getting. And she loved it when I’d put carrots or broccoli or a little tuna in her food.

And so the vet gave me some direction, and I started to cook. It’s been two or three weeks now, so it’s too soon to tell for sure, but I think we’re starting to work this thing out.

These days, I’m serving her a vet-approved mix of fish (salmon and tuna), a vegetable medley (broccoli, carrots, and green beans), and rice. And as time goes on, we’ll be tweaking the recipe for both optimal nutrition and any allergic reactions.

Feeding her this way has already yielded more results than any of the efforts we made in these past five years. I fed her oats for a day, and she immediately broke out in hives and hid under the covers (so the original vet was right, it seems; Luna can’t do wheat). I’ve also noticed that she gets a little itchy if I used canned veggies instead of fresh — so perhaps she’s reacting to preservatives or something.

The bottom line is that this diet is letting me do what none have before — identify individual offending ingredients and work around them.

We’re still on our quest for a completely allergy-free life. But these days, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to figure it out. And Luna is just thrilled that tuna is in and dog food is out.

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Gigi Griffis is a world-traveling entrepreneur and writer with a special love for inspiring stories, new places, and living in the moment. In May 2012, she sold her stuff and took to the road with a growing business and a pint-sized pooch. You can follow her adventures at gigigriffis.com or friend her on Facebook.