A guide to common dog food allergies and how you can help your dog

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We all love our pets and want to do the very best for them. We also know that nutrition is the key to maintaining good health and with this in mind it can be particularly stressful and upsetting when we discover our beloved dog may be suffering from a food allergy. Naturally we have a lot of questions when anything such as a potential food allergy affects our dog. For this reason I have put together this article to give you an overview of the most common dog food allergies along with the best ways you can help your dog.

What is an allergy and what causes an allergy?

An allergy is an abnormal and heightened immune response to a particular stimulus which is referred to as an ‘allergen’. Allergens can come from many sources but in this article we shall be discussing only food allergens. This allergic reaction is caused by the body releasing various chemicals such as histamine in response to the allergen which it has detected and as a threat. Any food ingredient can potentially be an allergen.

The difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance

Food allergy and food intolerance are two completely different things. Food intolerance will not trigger an allergic reaction from the body and usually your dog would need to consume a larger quantity of a food that he or she is intolerant to in comparison to a food that he or she was allergic to before experiencing any symptoms. Also, the symptoms of food intolerance and food allergy are likely to be different. Symptoms of food intolerance will usually result in bloating, excess gas, runny stools and tummy ache. Symptoms of food allergy can be very varied and range from slight to extreme in their effects. Lets’ take a look at the symptoms associated with common dog food allergies…

Symptoms of common dog food allergies

The symptoms of common dog food allergies can be very varied. The most common symptoms can include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Flatulence
  • Red and inflamed skin
  • Frequent scratching
  • Poor coat quality
  • Excessive licking
  • Chronic and recurrent ear infections
  • Chewing paws
  •  Hair loss
  • Chronic ear problems
  • Sneezing
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Poor growth in puppies

As you can see the most common symptoms of dog food allergies are very varied and there are some that you would not necessarily expect to be cause by a food allergy. It is important to remember that these symptoms can also be caused by many other issues including parasites; for this reason it is important to seek advice from your vet if your dog or puppy exhibits any of these symptoms.

Common foods that can trigger a dog food allergy

A human can be allergic to any food ingredient, so too can a dog. There are certain foods in our own diet that are more likely to trigger allergic reactions; this is also the case with certain foods fed to dogs. Here are some foods items that are more commonly associated with dog food allergies:

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Lamb
  • Fish
  • Egg
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Dairy

You may be looking at the list and thinking it covers just about every common ingredient fed to dogs and you would be right. This is no coincidence. Although not the only reason we see food allergies in dogs there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many allergic reactions occur with repeated exposure to ingredients. If your dog has become allergic to a certain food then it is likely that he or she will develop or have already developed allergies to other foods and so you will have to work to establish what ingredient/s your dog is allergic to so that you can remove them from the diet.

Food allergies typically occur in aged dogs from 2 years upwards. Allergic reactions seen prior to this time are usually; though not always, environmental or in response to parasites. Dogs that have food allergies have commonly been on the same food for a considerable amount of time; often their whole life or at least a couple of years in succession. Food allergies are very rarely connected with a sudden diet change.

Diagnosis and treatment of common dog food allergies

Diagnosis of common dog food allergies

Diagnosing a food allergy can be a tricky undertaking. The first step is to visit your vet to ensure that the symptoms your dog is displaying are not related to something else. Allergy testing can be performed in the form of blood tests and patch testing. These tests are not 100% reliable; however, do discuss these options with your vet as veterinary medicine is constantly evolving and they will be in the best position to advise you of the latest in diagnosis technology and strategies and the best ones to suit you and your dogs’ situation. Once it is established by your veterinarian that your dog is likely suffering from a food allergy, they will usually instruct you to begin an ‘elimination diet’ or ‘food trial’ to establish the exact allergen.

Treatment for dogs with food allergies

Treatment for dogs with food allergies usually begins with an elimination diet whereby the diet is restricted to try and establish the cause of the allergy. In addition to this your dog may be prescribed some form of antihistamine or treatment for any other symptoms they may be experiencing as a result of their food allergy. Once you have established the allergens that are affecting your dog and your dog is no longer consuming them then symptoms will begin to diminish and eventually disappear altogether. The time frame for symptoms to disappear depends on a number of factors such as the type of symptom, how sever those symptoms are and how long it take to identify the allergens and remove them from your dogs’ diet.

Hypoallergenic food trial/elimination diet

Hypoallergenic food trials usually run anywhere between 8-12 weeks. It can take 8-12 weeks to see any results from a food trial. During this time you will need to feed your dog a specific hypoallergenic diet. I cannot stress enough that if your dog on an elimination diet or food trial then you MUST withhold all treats, flavoured worming tablets, access to human food…everything! It is critical! It is no good putting your dog on an elimination diet and then other people sneaking him other food no matter how innocent it may seem. Their actions will likely cost you extra money and causes your dog unnecessary discomfort and potentially seriously delay his or her progress. Make sure all family members know how important this is and if you feel cruel not giving your dog treats just know that you are being cruel to be kind. Besides, you can always use some of his hypoallergenic diet as a reward treat.

You can purchase a commercially manufactured product or you can make a hypoallergenic diet at home.

Commercially available hypoallergenic dog foods

Hypoallergenic dog food is a huge market with many products available. It is difficult to know which one to choose. Part of your choice will be based on what your dog is already known to be allergic to and also what your vet has recommended as a course of action. There are two main categories in which these foods can be divided: They are hydrolyzed protein foods and novel protein foods.

Hydrolyzed protein food

Hydrolyzed protein hypoallergenic dog foods are those foods in which the protein is broken down into its component amino acids. The theory is that the proteins are broken down to be so small and fragmented that the body won’t entirely recognize and react to them as a threat and therefore will not produce an allergic response. Hydrolyzed protein is most commonly achieved by boiling in acid-HVP for prolonged periods or using enzymes as would be the case within the natural body.

Novel protein hypoallergenic dog food

Novel protein hypoallergenic dog foods are produced using limited and novel protein sources. They will often have novel carbohydrates such as sweet potato. A novel protein is usually any protein from a source that is not commonly found in regular dog food and is one that your dog has never been exposed to before. Examples of these would be venison, bison, kangaroo, duck and rabbit or maybe turkey.

If your dog has regularly consumed bison then bison would not be considered a novel protein for your individual dog despite it not being found in most dog foods. If on the other hand your dog has never had chicken then chicken would be considered a novel protein to your individual dog. A novel protein does not have to be limited to unusual and obscure meats or indeed plant based protein sources, though since most dogs will have had chicken, beef or lamb or various plant based proteins as part of their regular diet these meats and plant based proteins wouldn’t be considered novel for many dogs.

A quick word on plant based and animal based proteins and ingredients in dog food – this little section gets a bit ‘sciency’ so feel free to skip ahead if that’s not your thing!

It is worth noting that we tend to think of protein as a single thing; that protein is protein. In actual fact, protein is a collection of amino acids. It is also important to note that the amino acids found in animal based products are not always found in plants;  or at least, not always found in desirable or ideal quantities when concerning the feeding of dogs and other meat based eaters. Leusine is one example.

When plant based foods are fed (in excess of what nature intended) to living beings designed to eat predominantly meat we must also be aware of the potential absorption issues concerning some vitamins/minerals etc. It is noted that some vitamins and minerals can be bound to particular molecules preventing or reducing their level of absorption within the body. A good example of this would be calcium being bound to oxalates.  Plant based eaters, for example ruminants such as cows, have a specific digestive design that allows them to overcome these issues when eating large amounts of plant based foods.

Feeding plants to predators: Why things aren’t always so simple

When considering the feeding of plant based foods to predatory animals while being mindful of the potential for reduced nutritional uptake of appropriate vitamins, minerals and nutrients the answer seems so simple; that we must simply then feed more of a particular plant based ingredient to make up the deficit. Things are never quite so simple however and the increase of a particular plant based ingredient may also result in the increase of a particular anti-nutrient or a molecule which has a negative impact on the body (even if subtle or slight). This kind of approach may cause issues long term and lead us to having pets that survive rather than thrive and I know most people want the latter!

Dogs(and other predatory animals in captivity) have been repeatedly exposed to plant based ingredients and proteins in unnaturally high quantities  as manufacturers seek ever increasing profit margins and convenient production by using ingredients which are cheaper and easier to store. Plants, in particular grains and potatoes provide an ideal solution.

Species specific focus

Dogs are facultative carnivores. This means they are designed to thrive on animal based foods such as meat and organs etc but can survive on plant matter if the need arises. This helps them in times of hardship. They did not evolve eating vast quantities of grains and a common sense look at wild dogs and in particular wolves would show they do not naturally eat large quantities of grain or plants based foods. They do naturally consume various leaves and berries from time to time as well as the stomach contents of their prey which may have small quantities of grain, perhaps eaten by a rabbit they catch for example but generally I think most would agree that dogs are designed to eat predominantly animals based foods and that a species appropriate diet will be centered around such foods.

Check the labels…

Producers of both novel protein and hydrolyzed hypoallergenic dog food also usually limit the number of sources of protein in the food. Like any higher quality dog food they will have each ingredient listed separately instead of listing things that are just generalizations such as ‘cereals’ or ‘meat and animal derivatives’. Both of these terms could clearly be made up of any individual or combination of cereal or animal matter. If your dog became allergic to this food you would never be able to distinguish which ingredient your dog was allergic to since you wouldn’t know exactly what is in the food. It’s obvious that this doesn’t provide a suitable or reliable solution for those with dogs who are known allergy sufferers.

Some of the breeds that are more prone to food allergies

Certain breeds are said to be more prone to food allergies; weather this is down to the particular breed rather a particular line within the breed remains to be seen.

Some of the breeds said to be more prone to food allergies are:

  • West highland White
  • Irish Setter
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Boxer
  • Schnauzer
  • Beagle
  • Dalmatian
  • German Shepherd
  • Bichon Frise
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Jack Russel Terriers
  • Poodles
  • Bichone Frise

The list is not exhaustive and is growing but it is worth remembering that any dog can potentially develop a food. Also remember that the term ‘natural ingredients’ doesn’t always mean that those natural ingredients are ideal for dogs to be eating on a daily basis.

Bear in mind that this is a list of breeds ‘said’ to be more prone to dog food allergies and not that ‘are’ more prone to food allergies.  There are more of these popular breeds about than some of the less popular breeds such as Bedlington Terriers or Besenji. We must take into consideration that it could simply be that we see more of these breeds of dogs with food allergies because there are more of them. While it’s likely that some breeds genuinely may be more prone to developing allergies due to their genetic makeup, the reality is that ANY dog can develop a food allergy regardless of breed. This is particularly true when they have been fed a poor diet which is not species appropriate just as nature intended.

Common Dog food allergy Q&A

Q: How common are food allergies in dogs?

Food allergies are fairly common occurring in roughly 15% of dogs at the time of writing.

Q: Will changing my dog’s diet trigger a food allergy?

Changing your dog’s diet is not typically associated with food allergies. Most dogs presented with common dog food allergies have usually been fed the same food for more than a couple of years which is likely to be why we typically see dogs who are middle aged and been on the same diet for most of their early life being diagnosed with common dog food allergies. That said, if you do not know your dog’s history and you introduce a new diet that contains an ingredient that your dog is already allergic to then your dog will show an allergic response which you may associate with the new diet.

My advice in this situation would be to compare the ingredients on the packets of both foods and discuss them with your veterinarian so that you can conclude that the symptoms are not related to any other underlying cause and that you come up with an elimination diet/food trial for your dog to try and establish the culprit ingredient/s and subsequently remove them from your dogs’ diet.

Q: Can my dog suddenly develop a food allergy to something that he’s eaten for years?

Yes, absolutely. Most common dog food allergies occur in dogs that have had prolonged exposure to the same ingredient for a number of years. It is not unusual to see a dog fed the same food for a good length of time to develop an allergy to one or more of the ingredients. That said this is not the only reason for a dog to begin suffering from allergies, though it is common.

Q: How do I treat a dog with food allergies?

Your first port of call should be a consultation with your veterinarian to establish that there are no underlying causes for the symptoms your dog is displaying that are completely unrelated to a food allergy. Following this it is typical to begin an 8-12 week elimination diet/ food trial using a hypoallergenic diet either such feeding a raw diet with minimal ingredients so you know exactly what is in it or opting for a manufactured alternative such as Royal Canin Veterinary Hypoallergenic Dry Dog Food to establish which ingredient your dog is allergic to.

Which you choose will be a matter of personal preference, convenience, your budget and of course what foods your dog may have been exposed to. Discuss your options and preferences with your vet. A good vet will happily discuss the pros and cons of each option with you and be happy that you took the initiative to learn more and are taking an active approach to help your dog. Your dogs will also need to be treated for any symptoms displayed. If for example your dog has developed and ear infection related to food allergy the ear infection must be treated as well as making serious effort to establish the source of the allergic reaction.

Q: Should I cook for my dog rather than buy her food?

This is totally up to you. There are benefits to both cooking dog food and buying in dog food. Buying food in is convenient but cooking for your dog puts you in control of exactly what your dog is consuming. Do be sure that if you are cooking for your dog that you make sure that meals are balanced and meet the correct nutritional requirements your dog but it definitely not something that is well within the realms of possibility of many people.

Q: Will raw diet help protect against dog food allergies?

Potentially; it cannot be denied that raw diet is far more biologically appropriate and species specific for dogs than most of the commercial diets available. That said; it is also true that if your dog is allergic to something then he or she is allergic to it and so it is doubtful that if your dog has an allergy to, lets’ say beef; that they wouldn’t be allergic to beef if fed raw.

We do have to consider; however, that there may be chemicals and other elements that are produced through the process of cooking and processing in pet foods commercially manufactured and that some of these factors may affect your dog’s ability to consume a particular food and not have their body see it as a threat. It is after all not natural for dogs to have cooked food…dogs would never would naturally cook food.

Q: Is there anything I can do to keep my puppy from developing food allergies?

Preventing common dog food allergies is not an exact science. You can give your puppy the best chance by feeding a balanced and varied diet, ensuring your puppy has excellent gut health and is free of parasites.

Q: Can my dog die from a food allergy?

Yes. Dogs can die from food allergies just as people can. If a dog becomes allergic to a particular food and is left untreated it can die. Anaphylactic shock can and does kill, and dogs can go into anaphylactic shock if suffering from a severe food allergy. Dogs that develop infections as a result of having a food allergy are also at risk if left untreated. Infections can spread or become deep rooted and even become deadly if no care is given. For this reason always book an appointment with your vet to address the allergy and treat the symptoms and stay in touch with your veterinarian over time to ensure your dog has the best care.

Q: Is a dog food allergy genetic and should I breed from my dog that has a food allergy?

While food allergies are most commonly seen following repeated exposure to a particular ingredient there is an element of genetics involved. There is evidence that predispositions to allergies can be passed on from one generation to another. If considering a breeding a dog with allergies then it is important to critically judge if the benefits of a particular breeding would outweigh the negatives.

If you decide that your dog has a lot to give the breed, it would be wise to ensure that the mate’s line is allergy free. It is my recommendation that you avoid breeding from dogs with allergies where possible. While in an ideal world we would want to breed away from any negative things such as this it is often impossible to completely remove allergic dogs from breeding programs since many may have been bred long before they ever develop allergies.

Q: Where can I get hypoallergenic dog food?

Hypoallergenic dog food can be purchased from a variety of places. You can get it from your vet or from some of the larger pet shops. The biggest variety; as with most things nowadays, is available online from large online retailers such as Amazon and Ebay where many pet shops sell their products or some of the larger online pet retailers such as Zooplus or Viovet. Many of these offer foods for dogs with certain food intolerances or dogs who experience certain issues such as sensitive skin or digestive sensitivities. Buying online enables a larger selection of products, pack sizes, brands and delivery options to choose from. Sometimes you can even get a discount on individual or repeat order options.

Q: What should I look out for when buying a hypoallergenic dog food?

This depends largely on your situation. Steer clear from products which claim to be hypo-allergenic yet contain vague and generalised ingredients lists. If going down the novel protein route then try to choose products whose ingredients (as many as possible) are those which your dog hasn’t been exposed to. You may wish to consider trying the hydrolyzed hypo-allergenic dog foods. In this case, as is the case of novel protein foods it would be better to stick to one of the well-known brands. Be sure to pick one that has a detailed and specific ingredients list.

Q: What is the best dog food for dogs with allergies?

It really depends on what your dog is allergic to and what you feel comfortable with feeding your dog in general. Royal Canin and Hill’s are both reputable products and often recommended by vets but are by no means the only foods that may be suitable. Both wet and dry hypo-allergenic foods are available from many brands giving you plenty of choice. Shop around and don’t be afraid to discuss your choices with your vet.

We must not forget that a food being a specific brand does not mean it’s suitable food for your dog. It’s also worth remembering that superb nutrition for allergy management doesn’t have to be from a commercially produced food. You can create a diet for your dog by preparing raw/home cooked meals so long as you still eliminate the offending ingredient/s.

In short there is no right or wrong answer and it is very much down to the individual. Whatever you choose may require some tailoring to suit as you go along. It’s a case of going with what you are comfortable with and that suits your dog. If you choose a commercially produced product, try sticking to well-known, quality brands which have clear labeling. Be open minded enough to change where needed and dedicated to achieving success by sticking to the rules of an elimination diet…Remember no other foods for your pet!

If it’s difficult to withhold treats, consider swapping food rewards and treats for toys, play or a walk. Never give or let people sneak food to your dog out of sympathy.

Conclusion

Many dogs can develop a food allergy and it is our job as responsible pet owners to establish the allergen and remove it from the diet as well as treat the symptoms displayed by our dogs. We owe it to our beloved canine companions to give them best care possible and so for this reason I always advocate you visiting your vet if you think your dog has an allergy or any health issue and to never relying solely on information you find online when concerning your pets’ health. Information online can be another arrow in your quiver of knowledge, and we never stop learning but it should never substitute the proper attention of your veterinary surgeon under any circumstances.

I hope you found this article helpful and informative. Please share it with anyone you know who may find it helpful or interesting. It will help us make the world a better place for Furkidz and their Furparentz! Sending much love to all your pets!

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