Among the alternative recommendations for pet allergy treatment I have seen in some of my recent reading, a popular one is raw unpasteurized local honey. Many alternative veterinary medicine sites confidently proclaim that this safe and natural product can cure or at least markedly improve allergy symptoms in dogs, and possibly cats (though this is less commonly recommended, likely due to the oddity of imaging giving honey to an obligate carnivore).
The theory is that bees collect pollen while feeding on the nectar they use as the raw material for honey, and that some of this pollen is in the honey they produce. If a pet has allergies to local pollens, which are fairly common, feeding small amounts of these pollens daily may function over time as a form of hyposensitization or allergy immunotherapy. Conventional immunotherapy is an effective way of reducing allergy symptoms by injecting miniscule amounts of the specific proteins a person or animal has shown a sensitivity to in allergy testing. Over time, the immune system ceases to react so excessively to these proteins.
There are some problems with this theory. There is some controversy about whether oral immunotherapy is as effective as injectable immunotherapy in humans, though it appears to be a good alternative for at least some allergy patients. There is no comparable research I am aware of in dogs and cats.
Also, the allergens used in immunotherapy are selected for the individual patient based on allergy testing. It may not be correct to assume that the pollens in honey are the same as those causing allergy symptoms. In fact, there is some reason to think this is not the case. Plants that bees feed on have coevolved with bees and other insects for insect pollination. Their pollens are relatively heavy and generally stay attached to the plant until picked up by a pollinating insect. Those plants that are most commonly associated with allergies are usually wind pollinators, which is why their pollens are so problematic. So if the specific allergens one is allergic to aren’t in the honey one is eating, how ould this be a viable form of immunotherapy?
As usual, there is little in the way of good quality clinical research on this subject, none I am aware of in dogs and cats. One small but well-designed study in humans has been published:
Rajan TV, Tennen H, Lindquist RL, Cohen L, Clive J. Annals of Allergy and Asthma Immunology. 2002 Feb;88(2):198-203. Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis.
Allergic rhinoconjunctivitis is a common disorder, affecting >20% of people of all socioeconomic strata. Despite this high prevalence, relatively few sufferers seek professional medical help, presumably because of a widespread reliance on complementary remedies.
We investigated the widely held belief among allergy-sufferers that regular ingestion of honey ameliorates the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.
The study was conducted at the University of Connecticut Health Center’s Lowell P. Weicker General Clinical Research Center. Thirty-six participants who complained of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis were recruited. All recruits were scratch-tested at entry for common aeroallergens. The cohort was randomly assigned to one of three groups, with one receiving locally collected, unpasteurized, unfiltered honey, the second nationally collected, filtered, and pasteurized honey, and the third, corn syrup with synthetic honey flavoring. They were asked to consume one tablespoonful a day of the honey or substitute and to follow their usual standard care for the management of their symptoms. All participants were instructed to maintain a diary tracking 10 subjective allergy symptoms, and noting the days on which their symptoms were severe enough to require their usual antiallergy medication.
Neither honey group experienced relief from their symptoms in excess of that seen in the placebo group.
This study does not confirm the widely held belief that honey relieves the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.
So while it is not impossible that oral honey might have benefits in reducing allergy symptoms, the underlying theory has flaws and there is no supporting clinical evidence and even some negative clinical evidence in humans.