Are gluten-free diets for dogs a load of tosh?

Q: I am thinking about buying a border terrier puppy from a local gamekeeper. My friend tells me I will have to avoid feeding it gluten. But gluten-free diets for dogs are a load of old tosh, right?”

A:  Your friend might be right. But he could be wrong. Border terriers are currently the only breed known to suffer from paroxysmal gluten-sensitive dyskinesia (PGSD). PGSD used to be called canine epileptoid cramping syndrome and it has been known to border terrier owners for more than a century. Some people still call it Spike’s disease, after one of the first dogs to be diagnosed with the problem.

What is PGSD?

Dyskinesia is a Greek word meaning bad movement and paroxysmal is used because the condition is intermittent.  
Signs include:

  • Involuntary movement of one or 
more limbs.
  • Severe abnormal movement leading 
to collapse.
  • Gastro-intestinal upset, either between or during episodes.
  • Staring into space.
  • Lip licking.
  • Arching of the back and tensing of the abdominal muscles.
  • Occasionally, licking or chewing at paws.
  • Episodes can be short or last over an hour.
  • Episodes end abruptly and recovery 
is immediate.
  • There is a lack of “aura” before and after episodes (unlike epilepsy).
  • Episodes can be triggered by excitement (think doorbell or cat!).
  • There is no improvement with anti-epileptic treatment.
Border terriers

Border terriers are currently the only breed know to suffer from PGSD

What causes PGSD?

For many years, some owners have reported an improvement with certain diets. We do now know that gluten is the culprit, as affected dogs are sensitive to 
it. Gluten is a protein, composed of two amino acids, gliadin and glutenin, and it is found in wheat, barley and rye. Proteins from corn and rice are sometimes mistakenly labelled as “gluten” but they 
do not contain gliadin.

In humans, gluten sensitivity is best known for causing coeliac disease, where the immune system mistakenly produces antibodies against gluten, which damage the hair-like villi that line the intestinal tract, causing malabsorption. Gluten has also been blamed for bloating, gut pain, headaches and lethargy. We don’t know how but in dogs it seems that gluten sensitivity results in dysfunction of an area of the brain called the basal ganglia.

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How do you diagnose it?

It is rare for the condition to be diagnosed in the consulting room, as affected dogs are completely normal between episodes. Video evidence of involuntary movement can allow a tentative diagnosis and it is possible to test for levels of anti-gliadin and transglutamise-2 antibodies, which will be high in sufferers.

It should be noted that affected dogs already on a gluten-free diet will have low levels of these antibodies, so may erroneously appear to be negative. Don’t do an internet search and tell your vet that your dog is epileptic!

What to do about PGSD

Avoid gluten, check the label. Speak to your vet for friendly, helpful advice. Remember that products containing oats are often contaminated by gluten. Those involved with horses should be aware that their dung — which some dogs steal — is rich in gluten and this can confuse, as dogs fed a “gluten-free” diet will still have symptoms. Human foods to watch out for include bread, pasta, soup, cereals and sauces. And beer (hic!).

Finally, remember that this is NOT a life threatening condition. While episodes can be distressing for dog and owner, life expectancy is not altered. And PGSD occurs on both sides of the border.