Has your dog been itching and scratching himself, or been displaying an array of tummy troubles? Allergens in his food could be the culprit.
Many of the allergens that afflict people can also trigger an allergic reaction from dogs. Pollen and dust are common allergens, but some dogs exhibit allergies to poison ivy, cats, even their people. And dogs can be allergic to food as well - just like us!
Food allergies are a tough issue to crack in canines.
Treating your dog’s environmental allergies typically involves reducing your pet’s exposure to the offending allergen, and then starting them on a therapy to gradually de-sensitize their body to the substance.
Although there's no guarantee of success, these strategies can help alleviate the symptoms of many canine allergy sufferers.
But food allergies present an especially challenging problem. After all, you can’t very well reduce your pet’s exposure to food – at least not for more than 12 to 24 hours at a time!
Accordingly, food allergies must be treated by altering your pet’s diet in very specific ways to help eliminate the allergens, without neglecting your dog’s nutritional needs.
Dogs suffering from food allergies often exhibit a collection of relatively consistent symptoms. However, because these symptoms can mimic the symptoms of other illnesses, it’s wise to bring your dog to the vet for an evaluation if you suspect a food allergy is involved.
Fortunately, while food allergies are troubling and frustrating problems to deal with, they are rarely life-threating as they are for humans – so that’s a plus!
Whereas humans often suffer from a swollen throat or difficulty in breathing after consuming an allergen, dogs most frequently suffer skin ailments as the result of allergic reactions.
Dogs express allergies a bit differently than us. It may seem natural for us humans that an environmental/inhalant allergy results in sneezing, while a food allergy results in vomiting or a swollen throat. However, most dogs exhibit nearly all their symptoms through itchy, irritated skin, and possibly chronic ear infections.
Some of the most common symptoms of food allergies in dogs include:
Other, less common symptoms that may also signify a food allergy include:
Temporal factors can also provide clues to your dog’s condition. Because dogs are typically exposed to food-born allergens on a consistent basis, their symptoms don’t wax and wane as they would with exposure to an environmental allergen, such as pollen, dust or dander (which are more common during certain seasons).
Food allergies can afflict dogs of any breed or combination thereof. However, they appear to be more common among some breeds than others.
Some of the breeds that commonly suffer from food allergies include:
If you own one of these breeds, be especially alert for signs of a food allergy.
Allergies are caused by proteins that over-stimulate the immune system. The most common meat allergies for dogs are:
Beef, chicken, lamb, fish, and pork are all dog food meat ingredients that have been known to cause allergic reactions in dogs.
You'll notice that they're some of the most popular ingredients in dog food, and since exposure to these ingredients is common, they've become common allergens.
Other common dog food allergens that are not meat-based include:
As you can see from this list, allergens aren’t only caused by foods humans think of as “protein sources.” In reality, most foods – even vegetables and grains – contain some proteins. Accordingly, the proteins in things like wheat, soy and corn can also elicit allergic reactions.
Unfortunately, these are all common ingredients in commercial foods, and unless you actively work to avoid these ingredients, your pooch will likely be chomping them up in her kibble.
When you dog has a food allergy, your dog’s digestive system fails to digest some of the proteins in the allergy-inducing food. When these whole proteins contact specialized receptors in the intestines, the body treats them as dangerous invaders. This causes the immune system to launch a disproportionate response, which cause the side effects associated with a food allergy.
Certain grains, such as cereal grains, also have the potential to cause allergic reactions in dogs. Interestingly, this isn't necessarily due to the grains themselves - in some cases, its a result of the bugs that get into these grains.
You see, the grains used for dog food tend to be of the cheapest quality - they're the grains that were not fit for human consumption, and are more likely to suffer from an infestation of insects.
Grain insects carcasses, and their droppings, can be found in low-quality dog food. And since grain mites are a close relative to the dust mite (which is a common allergen for humans), it's no shock that the grain mites, who can infest whole grain bins in a matter of days, end up in your pooch's food and possibly be the culprit of allergic reactions (not to mention the possibility of disease).
Whether it's the actual grain or the bugs within the grains that are at fault, dog food grain is a common culprit for canine food allergies.
In addition to recognizing the possible signs of a food allergy, it’s also important to distinguish between true food allergies vs a simple intolerance.
When your dog has an allergy, it means that your dog’s immune system is overreacting to a normally harmless substance (called an allergen). Intolerance simply suggests your dog has trouble digesting something.
You should always consult your veterinarian before self-diagnosing your dog’s food allergies or intolerances. However, in general, dogs that have true food allergies will generally exhibit skin problems, while dogs with a food intolerance will just display intestinal upset. This commonly takes the form of gas, bloating, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Some food allergies may also cause digestive upset, but skin conditions are almost always the most prevalent problem.
While dairy and high-fat foods often cause digestive issues in canines, many pooches can eat one but not the other: My Rottweiler is capable of digesting fast-food quantities of fat (just like her daddy), but a teaspoon of ice cream can make her hurl.
In an ideal world, you should probably avoid giving either type of food to your dog, regardless of the different biological factors at play. Your dog may appear to take stomach ailments in stride, but you can bet they aren’t fun and they often lead to further problems.
Unfortunately, while researchers understand that food allergies are the result of an immune system overreaction, they do not understand what makes some dogs more vulnerable to the food allergy phenomenon.
Some believe that food allergies are the result of a genetic anomaly (as they are thought to be in humans) – something your pup is simply born with.
Others believe that food allergies are environmental – that they happen as a result of what your dog is fed and exposed to. The fact that some breeds and bloodlines appear to be more prone to food allergies than others supports the genetic argument, but the fact that dogs from similar regions often exhibit similar allergies supports the environmental hypothesis.
Despite the many questions surrounding food allergies, researchers are pretty sure of one thing: Allergies occur in response to exposure to a given allergen, and they often take some time to develop. Dogs do not often show signs of an allergy to a food the first time they consume it; symptoms appear after repeated exposure.
Some veterinarians recommend limiting the number of proteins you offer your dog over the course of her life. This will hopefully limit how many allergies develop, and it can make treatment much easier, should a food allergy ever come up over the course of your canine's life.
For example, a dog fed lamb, beef and chicken throughout her life will have been exposed to these various foods, which could cause them all to spark an immune response. This would drastically limit your options for a safe food source (you may soon find yourself importing kangaroo meat from Australia).
While a dog fed a vast array of protein sources may be at risk for several different allergens, by contrast, a dog raised solely on chicken can continue to be offered a variety of different protein sources to which she has never been exposed.
Some veterinarians suspect that antibiotics administered early in a pup’s life may also lead to allergies.
As a potential solution, they recommend providing young dogs with a probiotic supplement to help bolster healthy gut flora. However, this proposed treatment hasn’t yet been investigated thoroughly in dogs, and human-based research into this area has yielded mixed results, so there’s no guarantee of a solution quite yet.
In all likelihood, the answer will eventually turn out to be a combination of factors, but only time (and more research) will reveal the answer!
No matter the case, dog food allergies can manifest at any point in your pup’s life.
You may, for example, feed your dog chicken-based food for most of her life, only to discover that at some point, she begins exhibiting signs of an allergy to the food. And because the proteins contained in chicken are very similar to those in turkey, she may become allergic to all varieties of poultry!
While allergies among dogs aren't unusual, food allergies are somewhat uncommon.
According to Doctors Foster & Smith, food allergies account for just 10% of all allergies seen in dogs. They're the #3 most common form of dog allergies, behind flea bite allergies and atopy (aka inhalant) allergies. Make sure to investigate these possibilities before moving forward with your food allergy hypothesis.
The truth is that your dog is much more likely to suffer from a different kind of allergy rather than a food allergy - although it's still possible!
When it comes to figuring out exactly what ingredients are messing with your pup, the elimination-challenge diet is really the only way to go.
Veterinarians often recommend an elimination-challenge diet for their patients who are suspected of having a food allergy. But elimination-challenge diets aren’t only useful for confirming your suspicions - they're also helpful for treating the problem.
An elimination diet involves eliminating certain ingredients from your dog's diet in order to detect which food is causing an allergic reaction.
You begin implementing an elimination-challenge diet by trying to remove any potential allergens that may be present in your dog's food.
This generally means switching to a food that features a novel protein source, like:
Kangaroo, bison, pheasant, as well as venison, are generally considered novel protein sources. Few dogs are exposed to these food sources as a matter of practice, so allergies are unlikely to have developed in response to them.
Other recommended hypoallergenic meat protein sources include:
A good elimination-challenge food usually draws its carbohydrate content from brown rice, sweet potato, or even possibly white potato, which rarely cause allergy problems for dogs the way wheat or corn may.
Additives, artificial flavors, yeast and other supplements should also be kept to a minimum, to help reduce the chances of overstimulating the immune system.
Hopefully, the restricted diet will cause your dog’s symptoms to disappear (although it may take several weeks before this occurs). This will allow her to get the nutrition she needs, without suffering from a constant allergic reaction. This can help your dog start to feel better and heal!
When practicing an elimination diet, the following requirements must be met:
What if I have other dogs? Ideally, the easiest way to conduct the elimination diet when you own more than one dog is to do the diet with all the dogs! If that's not an option, feed the special diet dog in a completely separate room from the other dogs.
After several weeks, it’s time for the real magic to happen - the challenge portion of the diet can begin!
If your dog begins to show a reduction or elimination of allergy symptoms after the 12 weeks, it’s time to reintroduce those problematic foods you suspect of causing your dog’s allergies.
This may seem counter intuitive, since your dog is finally allergy free. However, the reintroduction of suspected allergy-causing foods is required to confirm your suspicions.
During this portion of the treatment, you slowly add back one food item that you suspect might be an allergen. If no change occurs with the first added food item, you can add another, one at a time. When one of the food items cause allergic reactions symptoms flare back up, you know which ingredients are to blame! Then void those like the plague.
It’s also important to remember that many dogs are allergic to more than one type of protein. This can complicate your efforts to determine the cause of your dog’s allergies. You may need to test several ingredients!
Even with all that work, permanent safety is no guarantee - your dog may eventually develop an allergic reaction to the new protein source after being fed it for a long period of time.
I know - that's the last thing you want to hear. Still, elimination diets are well worth the effort for your dog's happiness and ability to enjoy and process their food.
The elimination challenge diet is tough because your dog can’t eat anything that’s off plan – that means no treats, chews, or even flavored medicine!
You’ll need to be vigilant, but all the work will be worth it when you finally know exactly what ingredients your pup is allergic to, allowing you to pick the best food for their needs and provide a better quality of life.
Elimination diets are a ton of work, so it’s no wonder owners often look to blood testing as a possible immediate solution to discovering what ails their pup.
Unfortunately, blood testing can’t provide an accurate diagnosis for your dog’s food allergies. Elimination diets are the only option!
The good news is that intradermal skin testing is very helpful for diagnosing atopy / inhalant allergies! If you suspect your dog is suffering from allergies but are not sure what the cause is, intradermal skin testing is a great first step.
Since inhalant allergies are much more common than food allergies, skin testing may solve your issue.
Technically, the term "hypoallergenic dog food" is a bit misleading. There really is no such thing as a universal hypoallergenic dog food - it's mainly a marketing term. This is because, due to the nature of allergies, one type of dog food could be considered hypoallergenic for an individual dog, but not another.
For a dog allergic to chicken, any food that does not contain chicken would be considered hypoallergenic for that individual canine. However, another dog may be allergic to rice, not chicken, and therefore will have different needs, changing what would be classified as hypoallergenic for that specific dog.
Hypoallergenic dog food generally refers to a type of dog food that avoids common allergens - although what is truly hypoallergenic depends on your dog and her specific situation. Since common allergens can be avoided through a variety of different methods, there several types of hypoallergenic dog foods.
The main forms of hypoallergenic dog foods include:
Note that a dog food can fit into more than one of these categories. For example, a hypoallergenic dog food relying on a novel protein source can also have limited ingredients.
Remember that you should look for single-source novel proteins and single-source carbohydrates (so for example, you would not want a food that uses pheasant as well as fish, or sweet potato as well as rice).
Common combinations include:
Note: Lamb was once considered a novel protein, but has now become more common in dog foods. Still, if you haven’t fed your dog lamb before, it could be classified as a novel protein for your pooch.
Some owners consider switching to a raw diet to alleviate their dog’s food allergies.
While it is true that some raw proteins may have a slightly different configuration than cooked proteins, and these may prevent them from triggering an allergic reaction, no evidence has been collected yet to support such a conclusion.
In addition to the lack of substantial evidence for alleviating allergies, raw diets have a number of drawbacks that limit their appeal. In fact, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Veterinary Medical Association discourage pet owners from feeding raw meat to their pets.
The reasons for these recommendations are varied, but one of the most troubling problems is that raw meats often harbor a variety of bacteria, including Salmonella spp., E. coli and Clostridium spp., among others.
While homemade and raw diets sound all well and good, it’s actually quite difficult to compose a homemade or raw formula that will match the nutritional profile of a commercial dog food. This can lead to problems that are often worse than the allergy.
Homemade diets must be balanced with the right vitamins, supplements, minerals, etc. Manufactured dog food isn’t perfect, but it will still likely provide better nutrition that you can yourself. If you do choose to go forward with a permanent homemade dog food, make sure to consult a veterinary nutritionist.
Generally speaking, it is wise to provide your dog with a nutritionally balanced, bacteria-free, commercially prepared, hypoallergenic diet if your dog suffers from food allergies. While many are wary of manufactured dog foods (and with good reason), there are plenty of high-quality, healthy commercial dog food options available on the market. Commercial dog foods are designed specifically to meet your dog’s nutritional needs, making them the best and safest choice.
When you are seeking a good food to eliminate your dog’s allergies, you are really looking for a food that does not include the most common allergens (chicken, beef, wheat, eggs and corn). But you should also avoid foods that contain additives and byproducts, which may contain allergens too.
Many such foods are labelled as “hypoallergenic,” but this just means that the food contains fewer allergens than a “normal” food does (the prefix “hypo” means less or fewer). Obviously, there is a great deal of wiggle room in this definition, so it is important to consider all the ingredients contained in a given dog food, and not just the marketing claims.
Additionally, some good foods for dogs battling allergies feature hydrolyzed proteins, which should (theoretically) prevent allergic reactions from happening at all.
The following five products are all generally good choices for dogs with food allergies, although of course the best food really depends on your dog's unique issues!
About: Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diet is composed of relatively few ingredients, which is an important characteristic for allergy-friendly dog foods.
Additionally, this limited-ingredient food contains no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, further reducing the potential to trigger your pet’s allergies.
Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diet uses lamb as the primary protein source and brown rice as the primary carbohydrate – both of which are rarely implicated in food allergies. The recipe also contains canola oil, which provides a good source of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
PROS: Many owners report that their dogs digest this food better than many similar products, and some have even remarked that the food reduced the amount of gas from which their dog suffered. Additionally, the kibble is reportedly designed to encourage your dog (particularly if it is a large breed) to chew thoroughly, which can help aid the digestive process.
CONS: Like some other hypoallergenic dog foods, Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Diet is a little pricier than regular dog foods ($49.49 for a 28-pound bag), but it is quite reasonable when compared to other hypoallergenic foods.
About: Purina Pro Plan Focus Sensitive Skin & Stomach is made without many of the most common allergens.
In fact, Purina Pro Plan Focus Sensitive Skin & Stomach contains no wheat, corn, soy or chicken by-products. Instead, it is a salmon- and rice-based formula, which provides the nutrition dogs need, without triggering their allergies.
Although Purina Pro Plan Focus Sensitive Skin & Stomach contains no artificial colors or flavors, it is packed with the vitamins, minerals and nutrients your dog needs. Of particular note are the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids contained in the food, which help promote healthy joints and skin, respectively.
PROS: Most owners report that the food helps eliminate hot-spots and similar itchy skin conditions. Additionally, most dogs find the food very palatable.
CONS: It appears that a new formulation of the product contains dried egg products, which often elicit allergic reactions. Many owners report that the food smells strongly of fish, but that is a relatively minor problem.
About: Royal Canin Hypoallergenic Dog Food uses hydrolyzed soy as a protein source, which can help prevent your dog’s body from having an adverse reaction to soy-based products (frequently implicated in food allergies). Additionally, because the food is fortified with Omega-3 fatty acids, it helps keep your dog’s joints healthy.
The manufacturer claims that in addition to its hypoallergenic nature, Royal Canin Hypoallergenic Dog Food also provides nutrients that will improve your dog’s dental health and minimize the risk of kidney stones – particularly in older dogs.
PROS: Because it features only hydrolyzed protein sources, even dogs with especially troubling food allergies should be able to digest it without problems.
CONS: At $49.95 for an 8-pound bag, Royal Canin HP Hypoallergenic Dog Food is on the pricey side, but there are few better options for a dog coping with serious food allergies. You may need to get authorization from your vet before purchasing this product.
About: PS For Dogs 100% Hypoallergenic Dog Food is a grain-free, lamb-based food designed to help alleviate your dog’s allergies.
It also features a low glycemic index, which the manufacturer claims is the leading cause of paw-biting and paw-licking.
The Manufacturer, PS for Dogs, prides itself on providing nutritious food for dogs with food sensitivities and other ailments. In that spirit, they use only the highest quality ingredients, including human-grade lamb from New Zealand, and includes no additives or fillers.
PS For Dogs 100% Hypoallergenic Dog Food is manufactured in New Zealand, rather than the United States, but New Zealand has food-control regulations in place that closely resemble those of the United States and western Europe.
PROS: The food is created from a limited number of ingredients, and those that it does contain are rarely the source of allergies. Most dog owners that have tried the food have been very pleased with the way it has improved the condition of their coat and stopped the itching.
CONS: Some owners report the need to soak the kibble in a little bit of water before offering it to their dog, as it is quite dry and a different texture than many other foods. Additionally, at $26.97 for a 2-pound-bag, many owners were troubled by the high price, regardless of its efficacy.
About: Taste of the Wild Dry Dog Food is one of the best-selling hypoallergenic dog foods on the market.
The food, which the manufacturer claims replicates the diet of wild canids, features roasted bison and venison as the primary protein source. Additionally, the food contains supplemental fruits and vegetables, to provide a host of nutrients and antioxidants.
Many owners report that their dog’s allergic symptoms vanished after switching to Taste of the Wild, and some noted that their dog’s coat became softer and shinier. The product also contains the dried fermentation products of several Lactobacillus species, which may impart some pro-biotic characteristics to the food.
PROS: In addition to the high-quality ingredients used in Taste of the Wild Dry Dog Food, the product is priced quite reasonably at $41.99 for a 30-pound bag. Most dogs seem to love the taste – some owners even use the food as a treat.
CONS: Some owners reported that their dogs were unable to digest the food very well, resulting in loose stools. However, such complaints were not common.
Even though they don’t make up a huge percentage of your pup’s diet, treats can also trigger allergic reactions. Many treats are made from potential allergens, such as corn, wheat, chicken, pork or beef, and these could undermine your efforts to eliminate allergens from your dog’s diet.
Dietary allergies are often frustrating problems for both you and your pup, but they aren’t the end of the world. Work to determine the causal allergen and find a food that does not include it. With a little hard work, determination and perseverance, you can probably find a food that eliminates your dog’s itchy skin.
Does your dog have a food allergy? We’d love to hear your experiences and opinions on the matter. Let us know what foods have worked and which ones have not. Your experiences may even help someone else treat their dog’s food allergies.
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Ben is a proud dog owner and lifelong environmental educator who writes about animals, outdoor recreation, science, and environmental issues. He lives with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler JB in Atlanta, Georgia. Read more by Ben at FootstepsInTheForest.com.