Living gluten free is a constant exercise in detection. Severe sensitivities can be triggered by the slightest contact with the food, even secondary contact from a shared surface. Even after several years of strict gluten policing, I was caught off-guard when I found out that what our pets eat matters too. They could be depositing gluten on every surface in the house.
When someone with gluten sensitivity gets “glutened” or reacts to a gluten exposure, they often re-trace their steps to figure out what caused it and how it can be avoided. One place to look is in your pet’s food. Gluten may not directly affect your pet’s health (although some owners are reporting pet sensitivities). But every time they eat gluten it resides in their mouth. Every time they put their mouth or tongue on a surface or their own fur, they deposit gluten. That gluten can transfer to your hand when you pet them (or more directly if they lick your hand). It can transfer to the furniture and floor from their fur and chew toys. It can even transfer to your dishes and countertops if you allow them to eat from your dishes. Once gluten is on your hands and food surfaces, it is a short journey to your mouth.
Check the ingredients for your pet’s food. Unless you have an unusually severe sensitivity, you really only need to worry about listed ingredients. Cross contamination becomes one further step removed when your own exposure is only secondary. Wheat gluten itself is the biggest threat, and is frequently used as a main ingredient in canned food for texture control and protein. Wheat and barley are also often used as filler in dry food.
Other usual suspects include brewer’s yeast, malt, bran, Triticum Vulgare (another name for wheat), and wheat grass (sometimes sold as cat grass). Celiac.com maintains a more complete list of potentially unsafe food ingredients. Generally, the closer to the top of the ingredient list an item is, the more of that ingredient is in the food. Make sure you check treats as well.
While you can buy expensive gluten-free, and grain-free foods for your pet, there are other options for tighter budgets. Start with the brand you already feed your pet and see if they have a different, safer formulation. I found my favorite store brand offers an indoor formula cat food that is safe, even though wheat is listed in all the other types they offer. Canned food with gravy is more likely to have wheat or gluten than pate style. Plan to spend up to half an hour at the store one day just reading labels, or note which brands your store carries and look up ingredients lists online. Remember that formulas change frequently, so go by the label, rather than advice from forums.
Gluten may remain in your pet’s mouth or on their fur for around 72 hours after you switch the food. Wash your hands carefully after petting them during this time, and avoid letting their fur touch your mouth. Some pets do not react well to a sudden change in food. Mixing the new food half and half with the old for a few days will help their digestive system adjust gradually, but you will have to be careful about hand and mouth contact until they are clean.
Once they are entirely on the new food, it may still take 48 to 72 hours for the gluten contamination to work its way out of your pet’s mouth and off its fur. Consider brushing your pet’s teeth and giving them a warm, soapy bath to speed up the process. For a thorough decontamination, make sure you clean furniture, blankets, rugs, and pet beds your pet has had contact with. Wash their toys with hot, soapy water.
These precautions may sound extreme to someone without food sensitivities. Only someone who knows the pain and life disruptions that a sensitivity contact can cause knows how the small details can make a big difference.