They’re well-disguised scams, and they’re stealing our money.
How would you feel if you paid one hundred dollars for a test with your veterinarian and then later found out that it wasn’t even validated? Say, you paid the money upfront and later went to discuss it only to have your vet inform you that the results are no more reliable than simple random chance. How would you feel then?
Well, what if I told you that this is happening every single day though not (usually) on the recommendation of a veterinarian. Rather, online tests for pet allergies are being purchased each and every day through companies claiming to know how to solve your pet’s problems. What they fail to mention is that their tests have not been scientifically validated and are no better than randomly drawing results from a hat.
Let’s start with a little background.
If you’ve ever owned a dog with allergies, you know how difficult they can be to live with. They may stay up all night licking their paws, they may get repeated ear infections, or even suffer from bacterial and fungal skin infections.
To make matters worse, our furry friends can have allergic reactions to their food as well as the environment — just like us!
Treatment of allergies, especially severe ones, requires extensive back and forth with your veterinarian. It often takes several days to get their skin back to a level of comfort that everybody in the house can tolerate. It can take several months to get them back to ‘normal,’ and sometimes it can even take upwards of a year to find the best solutions for them. It is frustrating.
This all adds up in both time and money for you as the owner, as well as for us as the veterinarians. Believe me, if there were a reliable test that owners could collect at home, submit to a lab, and bring results into the clinic to get a specific treatment, then veterinarians would be promoting it more than anyone else.
The only scientifically validated way to diagnose a food allergy is through an elimination diet trial.
Although diet trial is the only reliable test for food allergies, it’s important to note that there are two types of environmental allergy testing routinely recommended by veterinarians in the clinic. These tests are not to be confused with the online scams we will be discussing soon.
This test requires a blood sample and evaluates whether or not your pet has antibodies (immune proteins) present in their serum to various allergens. The presence of antibodies specific to certain allergens suggests that they are part of the problem for your pet. The results can be tricky to interpret, but it is one of our only validated assays to screen for causes of allergies in pets. It is not reliable at assessing for food allergies.
Intradermal Skin Testing
The second test is intradermal skin testing. This is currently the gold standard for diagnosing environmental causes of allergy. It is similar to what you or I may go through at the allergist. In this test, small amounts of allergen are injected under the skin and monitored for a response by the body. It is actually quite reliable; however, it usually requires sedation or anesthesia and for a portion of your pet’s body to be shaved of fur. It is also not reliable at assessing for food allergies.
What’s the problem then? Well, there are currently no reliable tests for food allergies. I am not exaggerating. There are no laboratory tests that have been scientifically validated and shown to be useful in the diagnosis of specific food-related allergies in pets.
This is where the scam comes in.
There are numerous companies that market an allergy test that you can do at home. For a small fee (from $50 to as much as $300), you can submit hair and/or saliva samples to ‘labs’ who will send you back a report of all the allergens your pet reacts to — often both food and environmental. Unfortunately, with these tests, neither result proves to be very accurate.
I’ll repeat that one more time…
The only scientifically validated way to diagnose a food allergy is through an elimination diet trial. A diet trial requires anywhere from 4–8 weeks on an exclusive food, usually a hydrolyzed protein diet; though sometimes novel protein diets will work. Tests that claim they know the cause of a food allergy are flat out wrong.
Unfortunately, these online tests prove to be inaccurate for food and environmental allergens alike. The results sent to consumers are no better than picking random ingredients out of a hat that your pet may be allergic to. Furthermore, they are inconsistent, meaning that if I sent a sample from my own pet multiple times I’m unlikely to get the same results.
If that isn’t enough to dissuade you from spending your hard-earned cash on these tests, perhaps it will be helpful to know that not only are they random, they are also unable to differentiate real samples from fake ones. I can send a sample from both my real dog and a stuffed animal and get an equally comprehensive list of “allergens.” Researchers in this study submitted water instead of saliva and obtained an equally comprehensive list of allergens.
We all yearn for quick fixes for our pets’ maladies, especially when we have to see them uncomfortable for so long. While certainly not every test available on the market has been evaluated with the same level of scrutiny as those linked above, the onus should be on the company to provide research showing efficacy and accuracy — not on the consumer.
Companies that offer these tests are quick to avoid questions about their efficacy and frequently come with massive disclaimers at the bottom of their web page summarizing their lack of validation, like this one,
I contacted two companies to see if they could direct me to research validating their products. The first didn’t respond, and the second is below.
While most companies will not detail the methods of their tests through email for competitive reasons, there should be no difficulty furnishing a statement of how specific and sensitive it is — especially when you’re paying for it. At the very least, they should be able to provide a pilot study on their product and its methods. I was simply directed back to their website for their publicly available information. Unfortunately, the website information consistently just states that the test screens for hundreds of common allergies. They never discuss how the testing works, nor how reliable it truly is.
I was also directed back to my veterinarian. Unfortunately, as a veterinarian myself, I know that these results are meaningless. So, the list of allergens that they send me will not serve to advance my pet’s treatment, nor my veterinarian’s diagnosis.
One website goes on to specifically contradict current veterinary recommendations by suggesting that the therapies with peer-reviewed support in the literature simply ‘mask’ the problem while their product will get to the bottom of it. However, they fail to mention how their test does that. Their statements demonstrate a fundamental failure in understanding how pet allergies work.
Another test kit describes how comprehensive its testing is and advocates for how their company can play a major role in developing a care plan for your pet. However, they then discount it all by noting that it does not take the place of “traditional allergy testing.”
The traditional blood test that they mention is, in fact, the serum blood test discussed earlier. The test this website sells screens for a majority of food allergens (200+) which, as we’ve discussed, is not reliable as well as over 100 reported environmental allergens. So, basically their product screens for over 300 possible allergens, but then they must go on to suggest, that ‘you should still consider the traditional tests (read validated) for an accurate workup of your pet.’ So, why should you spend $300 for this test first?
To be clear, I have no problem with testing for environmental allergens. I do have a problem with using tests that lack efficacy data to do so. I also take an issue with any test claiming to identify specific food allergens. These caveats apply to all available online tests evaluating fur and/or saliva at this time. The only way to get reliable allergy testing is through your veterinarian, and even these testing methods will leave some to be desired.
As a veterinarian, it’s a difficult tightrope to walk when navigating discussions about allergies. The same $50–$300 that my client spent to have their dog’s saliva and fur tested could have been applied to months worth of medication with peer-reviewed literature behind it, or towards a consultation with a veterinary dermatologist to perform validated allergy testing. It could have purchased enough prescription dog food to perform an adequate diet trial to accurately assess for the presence of a food allergy while simultaneously improving the clinical signs.
The reality is that if these tests worked companies would have no problem sharing their data and veterinarians around the globe would be embracing and recommending them.
Veterinarians and other professionals alike are held to specific standards when recommending diagnostics and treatments. Namely, there must be strong data backing their efficacy, accuracy, and/or safety. Unfortunately, companies online can get around these barriers by simply adding a disclaimer to their products. They then can go on to making hundreds of thousands if not, millions of dollars, in revenue for products that have not been validated for the sole purpose that they claim.
If these companies were simply out to protect pets, they would have no difficulty sharing how they’ve validated their tests. They would quickly fund studies to prove how efficacious their test is at providing veterinarians and owners a result that quickly leads to a specific treatment.
If any of these companies release peer-reviewed literature validating their methods, I will be happy to flip my stance, but until that time please stop wasting your time and money on these online tests!
Thanks for reading.
Notes: I did not include links directly to product websites in this article for two reasons.
Number 1: I did not want anybody who was skimming the article to mistakenly take the link as a recommendation/affiliation.
Number 2: I’ve found that websites with targeted ads have begun heavily marketing these products to me during the writing of this article, and I don’t feel that’s fair to the reader.
The products that I’ve discussed are not difficult to find if you’d like to look at their websites simply search for dog or pet allergy testing. This article is not meant as an attack on any specific company, rather as a warning to consumers who may not have been able to have this conversation with their veterinarian yet.