Veterinarians doubt validity of ImmuneIQ allergy test

Hair and saliva analysis fooled by fake fur

April 5, 2017 (published)
By Edie Lau

Research presented last May at the 8th World Congress of Veterinary Dermatology in Bordeaux, France, concluded that the ImmuneIQ test is not a reliable substitute for standard allergy testing.
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The owner of a relentlessly itchy German shepherd puppy hoped to find a solution to her dog’s constant licking, chewing and scratching by using a test sold online called ImmuneIQ.

All she had to do was send in a clipping of the pup’s fur and a cotton swab of saliva. In return, she received a list of foods and environmental allergens to which the dog was said to be sensitive. Full of hope, the owner brought the list to the pup’s veterinarian in Covington, Washington.

That’s when she heard that she probably had been duped.

“This is a long-time client of mine, and I was pretty blunt in my response that I thought the test wasn’t useful,” Dr. Wendi Walsh recounted in an interview by email with the VIN News Service.

Veterinarians around the country have had similar conversations with the owners of allergy-prone dogs and cats ever since ImmuneIQ surfaced online a few years ago. Like Walsh’s client, many pet owners are eager for an easy answer to an often frustrating condition. Like Walsh, many practitioners suspect that the mail-order allergy test is bogus. Recent research by a team of veterinary dermatologists deepens their suspicion of fraud.

Led by Dr. Kimberly Coyner of Dermatology Clinic for Animals in Olympia, Washington, and Dr. Anthea Schick of Dermatology for Animals in Scottsdale, Arizona, the research found that ImmuneIQ test results given for multiple submissions of samples from two dogs were no different from results that would occur by random chance. In other words, statistical analysis showed that the dogs’ allergic reactivity as reported by ImmuneIQ made as much sense as answers chosen out of a hat.

Researchers submitted samples from two dogs, one with allergies and one without. Every result was positive for some allergies, and the 10 results obtained for each dog did not match.

Even more telling, the test did not recognize that five samples the researchers submitted consisted of fake fur from a child’s costume, and water rather than saliva. The faux fur was said to be allergic to numerous foods, including cottage cheese, fish meal, soy, tuna, kidney beans, white rice and wheat.

Test called ‘highly proprietary’

Company founder sought protégé

ImmuneIQ is sold by VetDVM LLC in Boulder, Colorado. State business records show VetDVM was formed in 2012 by Robert Ryan. ImmuneIQ is touted as “veterinarian developed and approved,” but Ryan is not licensed as a veterinarian in Colorado nor does he identify himself as a veterinarian. Company materials refer to “our veterinarian, Dr. Nancy” but do not disclose her full name.

In response to an email inquiry from the VIN News Service, Dr. Nancy Brandt, an alternative-medicine practitioner in Las Vegas, acknowledged, "I have done occasional consulting for them on veterinary related questions regarding formulation." She did not say whether she is the veterinarian who developed the product, and she declined a telephone interview, citing lack of time.

The VIN News Service attempted to reach Ryan or other company executives by phone, email and standard mail to learn more about the test and discuss the research that suggests the assessment is a sham.

A “pet care support advocate” who identified herself as Melissa replied by email, “I’ve passed your inquiry on to our management. They will contact you directly.” More than two weeks later, no one from management had followed up.

The website for ImmuneIQ asserts: “Your pet’s hair and saliva are loaded with valuable clues to the causes of their suffering and discomfort.” The test, priced at $87, is touted as “Easy. Affordable. Pain-free.”

The company does not disclose its test methodology, calling it “highly proprietary.” The website states: “All assessments are performed by our certified vet techs at our laboratory in Las Vegas, Nevada using our highly proprietary multi-stage process that analyzes both the saliva sample for more recent exposures and hair samples for a more historic view of the bodies response fingerprint that gives us the total intelligence of the immune system.

“Our unique approach gives us a window into how the animal immunologically and energetically reacts to the environment it is in. These environmental factors that are present and/or have left behind residual reactive activity in the animal can be easily overlooked, discounted or undetected but still be exhausting the immune system."

The company says it assesses samples for 75 food and environmental allergens; tests for "toxins, bacteria and virus and molds and fungus" cost extra.

‘My bogus flag went up’

Dr. Jim Delker first encountered ImmuneIQ in 2014 when a client who had just adopted a pet with allergies came to his clinic in Soldotna, Alaska, with the test results.

Delker politely told the client he thought the assay interesting and would check it out. Inwardly, he was dubious. “I really thought it was bogus because it made no sense,” he told the VIN News Service. “I do enough continuing education and reading and keep up with the journals and stuff [to know that] if this was a legitimate test, I would have heard about it. My ‘bogus’ flag went up.”

He added, “I’m not against my clients seeking alternative therapies, but when they make claims that have never been proven, it’s difficult.”

Delker attempted to learn more about the test. The company does not staff its telephone line, so Delker filled out an email contact form provided on the product website. He portrayed himself as a prospective customer.

“Having some science background, I am interested in your testing protocol and am wondering what testing methodologies you are using to determine an immune response?” he wrote. “What do [you] actually test for in the cheek swab and hair? Can you explain the testing methods or direct me to any literature describing how the test works, or how you validate the results? I have not seen any tests like this and am really interested in learning more about it.”

Someone identified as Marie L. replied, directing Delker to submit his questions in writing to the company’s physical address at 4450 Arapahoe Ave. Suite 100 in Boulder. (That address belongs to Intelligent Office, which rents “virtual office space.”)

Delker protested: “I am confused with why you would ask me to submit my questions by ‘snail mail’ when you already have them?? … At first glance this would appear to [be] an avoidance tactic. I have concerns about doing business with a company that has no phone contact and refers simple email questions to lengthy postal service contact methods???”

Marie L. then responded at length but without providing the details Delker sought. Her message read in part: “Our test is proprietary and we do not disclose our methodology or any other trade secrets related to the lab-to-laymen software we use."

Delker’s suspicions further aroused, he contacted the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA), which oversees the state Board of Veterinary Medicine. He filed a complaint against VetDVM LLC in October 2015.

Thirteen months later, on the day before Thanksgiving 2016, Delker received a message from a DORA investigator who had submitted samples from his own dog to ImmuneIQ. The investigator was preparing to submit his report to the board and wanted to know if Delker had anything more to add.

Delker did not. But that was before he knew about the research by Coyner and Schick.

Groupon discounts spur takers

Coyner is a dermatology consultant for the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service. Schick, too, is a dermatologist and one-time member of VIN. ImmuneIQ has come up for discussion on VIN message boards since at least 2013. It’s discussed in other veterinary forums, as well.

It was during one such informal discussion with colleagues at a professional meeting that Coyner and Schick came up with the idea to test the validity of ImmuneIQ. “We all said, ‘We’ll all buy these test kits with fake names on Groupon,’ ” Schick recounted.

The doctors turned to Groupon because ImmuneIQ periodically is sold on the discount website. Veterinarians say they can tell when there’s a Groupon deal going because it usually brings a wave of clients bearing printouts or asking whether the test is worth a try.

For the study, eight veterinarians in various locations around the country submitted 10 hair and saliva samples from a dog known to be allergic; and 10 samples from a dog with no known allergies. They also submitted five samples of tap water and realistic-looking fake fur that Schick snipped from a pair of clip-on cat ears belonging to one of her children.

(To be sure that the fur was synthetic, Schick examined it under a microscope. Real hair has a multifaceted structure — a core surrounded by a cortex consisting mainly of overlapping layers of keratin that resemble shingles — whereas artificial fur is uniform in structure.)

Schick described the ImmuneIQ kit as cheap and flimsy: Inside a box made of “chintzy card stock” were two small, thin plastic bags about 2 inches square, glued to card stock. One bag was for the hair sample. The other contained half of a cotton swab with which to collect saliva from the pet’s inner cheek.

Results returned by VetDVM showed that all the dogs, including the fictitious pet represented by fake fur and tap water, had allergies; the specific allergens identified varied from result to result.

The company offers further analysis for additional fees. “This is where they really get you,” Schick said. “...You can do fungal [tests], you can do chemical things ... you can pay extra for interpretation and recommendations, which is just such a scam, in my opinion.”

Coyner and Schick initially had a modest goal for their research. "We just wanted to be able to tell our own clients, 'Hey, this is not worth doing,' " Schick said. Then they decided to submit an abstract to the 8th World Congress of Veterinary Dermatology, which accepted the study for a poster presentation last May in Bordeaux, France. Now the researchers plan to prepare a manuscript for submission to a scientific journal.

Aggravating, laborious, difficult

Schick and other veterinarians say they understand why pet owners are susceptible to the promise of easy answers. Allergies in dogs and cats are aggravating to live with, laborious to diagnose and sometimes difficult to treat.

Typical signs of allergy include incessant scratching and paw-licking, skin infections and ear infections. To complicate matters, infections can cause itchiness, too.

To pinpoint food allergies, Schick said, standard protocol is an elimination diet that involves giving the animal a home-cooked or commercial therapeutic test diet consisting of non-allergenic foods only, then adding allergenic foods one at a time to gauge the animal’s tolerance for each.

The process can take six to 12 weeks, during which the pet must not be given table scraps, treats including rawhides, or even flavored oral medications such as heartworm and flea and tick preventives.

Environmental allergies are equally if not more tedious to diagnose and address. Identifying specific environmental allergens involves either a blood test or a skin prick that's similar to the allergy tests performed on people. For a skin test, Schick said the animal is lightly sedated, a rectangle of hair on his flank is clipped to expose the skin, and the veterinarian injects a variety of allergens, primarily pollens from trees, weeds and grasses. Where the skin reacts with hives indicates an allergy to the substance injected at that spot.

Treatment consists of desensitizing the body by exposing it to small amounts of allergen, either through weekly or biweekly subcutaneous injections or, in a newer method, through oral drops given daily. Desensitization can take the better part of a year.

Schick said a typical estimate at her practice for skin testing — which includes a catheter, sedation, sedation reversal, outpatient monitoring, skin test, custom test kit, syringes for home use and a vial of allergen that usually lasts about six months — runs $800 to $1,000.

“It’s so frustrating for all of us,” Schick said. “Chronic skin disease is really frustrating and so expensive. We see [it] so many times … [owners] are trying to do everything for their pet.” It’s no wonder to her that they’re beguiled by a product that promises easy answers for less than $100.

“I tell my owners all the time, ‘I wish I could trust these tests,’ ” Schick said. “It would make my life easier, it would make my clients’ lives easier; they’d be less cranky with me.”

Regulators field complaints

A few weeks ago, Delker received a letter from the state of Colorado notifying him that its veterinary board reviewed the case against VetDVM LLC on Feb. 16, then tabled the matter “pending additional information.”

Shortly after, while attending a veterinary conference in early March, Delker learned from a dermatologist about Coyner and Schick’s research on the test. He obtained a copy of the research poster, which he shared with officials in Colorado. Last he heard, the matter might be added to the veterinary board’s April 13 meeting for further consideration. (An agency spokesperson told the VIN News Service that "the matter is an open investigation" and therefore the agency could provide no information.)

VIN News Service screen shot
ImmuneIQ is billed as “veterinarian developed and approved,” but the marketer doesn't identify the veterinarian or veterinarians involved.
Other veterinarians have lodged complaints with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Melanie Butera, a practitioner in Ohio, was prompted by a Groupon promotion to investigate the company much as Delker did. “I am very suspicious it is a scam,” she wrote on a message board of VIN in February 2015. “How easy it is to take people's money and send them a professional-looking printout of results without any scientific basis behind them. The company founder and sole employee is not a vet, but a marketing / PR person. I called the criminal investigations field office of the FDA and they were very helpful and definitely interested in looking into the matter.”

Butera was in contact with two FDA investigators for two months, then heard nothing more. What became of the agency’s inquiry is unclear. A spokesperson told the VIN News Service last week that she could neither confirm nor deny that the FDA was investigating.

Among the veterinarians who shared their experiences with the FDA is Dr. Lily Johnson, a nutrition specialist in San Francisco who teamed up with a colleague to test ImmuneIQ by submitting samples from the colleague’s healthy female Cavalier King Charles spaniel.

Johnson said many of the foods and ingredients identified by the test as “bad/problem” are foods the dog was eating without adverse effects. “With such an extensive list of false positives on an asymptomatic dog, I would not trust this test to accurately diagnose food allergy in a dog with clinical signs,” she told the VIN News Service by email.

“The test results also contradict themselves,” Johnson continued. “Melons are in the good list, but cantaloupe is in the bad list. Fish in the good list and cod liver is in the neutral list, but fish meal, mackerel, ocean fish, ocean whitefish, and tuna are in the bad list.

“Beyond being inaccurate, these contradictory results simply do not make sense.”

Because the spaniel belongs to a veterinarian who equally doubted the test, Johnson was spared having to disillusion a hopeful client. Back in Washington, Walsh, the veterinarian with the itchy German shepherd patient, did her best to let her client down gently, if firmly.

“She was disappointed since her dog’s itching was so upsetting and stressful, but she was thankful for my honesty,” Walsh said. “She just wanted her dog to feel better and thought she was being proactive with tackling her allergies.”

Today, the German shepherd is doing fairly well, Walsh said. She's seen a dermatologist and was found to be allergic to trees, weeds, storage mites and dust mites — none of which was identified on the dog's ImmuneIQ test result, Walsh noted. The dog is taking a canine allergy medication called Apoquel, and her owners wipe her down every day with a wet cloth to remove pollens.

“I was lucky that this client was intuitive enough to come see her veterinarian and discuss the test results …” Walsh mused. “It’s aggravating that this test is out there, as some people will use it in lieu of their veterinarian, and their pet will continue to suffer.”

Update: The ImmuneIQ website showed an announcement in May that its operations would cease as of May 10. On June 29, the Colorado Board of Veterinary Medicine issued cease and desist orders to Robert Ryan and VetDVM LLC, dba; and to Dr. Nancy Brandt. The ImmuneIQ website no longer is online.

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