Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that is seen in humans, which causes damage to the small intestine when food that contains gluten is ingested. Gluten is a protein that is found in food products that have wheat, rye, and/or barley. When gluten is ingested, the body triggers an immune reaction to the protein, which in turn causes injury to the small intestinal tract. There are many clinical signs that can be seen in people with celiac disease, most commonly those involving the gastrointestinal tract, but signs involving the neurological system have also been documented. Celiac disease as described in humans has not been directly documented in dogs.
Gluten Sensitivity in Irish Setters
Irish setters have been diagnosed with a gluten-sensitive enteropathy that is similar to celiac disease, but not thought to be the same mechanism. This disease process in Setters was first recognized in the UK in 1984. Irish Setters with this intestinal disorder usually present at less than 1 year of age, especially those with a clinical history of weight loss, emaciation, and diarrhea. On physical exams and blood work, their results look similar to other dogs with non-gluten associated intestinal disease. The main difference is that they do not respond to treatment for gastrointestinal parasites, bland diet trials, or treatment with corticosteroids. Irish Setters with gluten-sensitivity have improvement of clinical signs with elimination of gluten from their diets. The mainstay is treatment with a commercial grain-free diet.
Is Going Grain-Free a Good Idea?
Gluten-sensitive enteropathies have only been documented in Irish Setters. Some dogs with chronic gastrointestinal signs do better on grain-free diets, due to limited ingredients or alternate protein sources. Caution should be taken before going grain-free, since these diets have been linked to nutritional-based dilated cardiomyopathy.
There is still research being done to further isolate the cause for these cardiac changes. Before switching to a grain-free diet, speak to your veterinarian to discuss pros and cons of the diet change. Because dogs do not get celiac disease, a grain-free diet is typically unnecessary.