- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
When I was a practicing veterinary technician, I encountered many clients with questions about their pets’ potential allergies. They’d be surprised to find out that dogs can develop allergies to certain ingredients even in premium foods. Increasingly, it’s easy to find pet foods made with high-quality ingredients and limited fillers. Yet our dogs can still be allergic or intolerant to a number of these ingredients.
First off, it’s important to know there’s a big difference between a food intolerance and a true food allergy for dogs. A dog food intolerance is when a dog has difficulty digesting a certain ingredient, like dairy, whereas a food allergy triggers an immune response.
Jean Hofve, DVM explains in Whole Dog Journal that for most dogs, skin and gastrointestinal problems are not usually the result of a food allergy, but rather due to environmental allergies like pollen or grass. However, some dogs are truly food-allergic.
Read on to find out what that means, and how you’ll know if your dog’s food is causing an allergic reaction.
What is a true food allergy?
A food allergy occurs when your dog’s immune system mistakenly identifies a particular food ingredient (usually the protein source) as harmful. Your dog’s body then creates defensive antibodies to fight the invading enemy (the ingredient).
Dr. Hofve explains that an allergy is a “real immunological reaction to a food component.” Food allergy symptoms commonly include:
- Itchy skin (aka pruritus)
- Itchy paws
- Hot spots (skin infections resulting from excessive scratching)
- Skin rashes
- Scaly and/or oily skin
- Pigmented skin
- Leathery skin texture
- Eye discharge
- Red eyes
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Hair loss
- Ear infections
- Secondary yeast or bacterial infections (aka pyoderma) of the skin or ears
Some pet owners wonder if their dogs can inherit allergies, and the short answer is yes. Essentially, they inherit the allergy from a parent and if they’re exposed to that food, they’ll have an allergic reaction as well.
Dogs are most commonly allergic to the following foods (in descending order): beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb/mutton, soy, pork, rabbit, and ﬁsh. Rabbit and fish are by far less common food allergens than the others.
7 most common causes of food allergy in dogs
- Beef. Proteins are common food allergens. Feeding your dog a single food for years increases their potential to develop an intolerance or allergy to one or more ingredients. Beef is one of the most common ingredients in a lot of pet foods, which may be the reason it’s the most common food allergen. I feed our three dogs a raw diet and we rotate meats every week. I do this partly to ensure we decrease the risk of developing a food allergy.
- Dairy. Some dogs have problems digesting lactose. This is an intolerance, rather than an actual allergy. Lactose intolerance leads to gas, diarrhea, or vomiting. What’s tricky is that a true dairy allergy can lead to these symptoms too, so it’s hard to know if a dog is suffering from an allergy or an intolerance. One important distinction: a dairy allergy may manifest as skin itchiness or related symptoms, whereas lactose intolerance is always about digestion.
- Wheat. There are many misconceptions regarding carbohydrate-containing foods for dogs, especially grains. It’s much more common for dogs to have allergies to meat than grains, for instance. However, some dogs do have an allergic reaction to wheat. Check with your vet or pet nutritionist about grains, as every animal should be treated as an individual.
- Eggs. An egg allergy means that your dog’s immune system overreacts to the proteins present in the egg yolk. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to avoid eggs. Just be sure to double-check food labels.
- Chicken. The same rules apply here as they do for beef and lamb! Just because it’s plain old chicken doesn’t mean your dog can’t be allergic to this common protein.
- Lamb. Many commercial dog foods were made with chicken or beef, so lamb was considered a good option for dogs that experienced allergies while eating “regular” food. However, it’s also a possible cause of allergy. If your dog is allergic to lamb and rice, you could try venison and sweet potato.
- Soy. Some studies have shown that eating soy can cause various health issues beyond allergy, including reproductive and growth problems, thyroid, and liver disease. Dr. Karen Becker, for Healthy Pets, is very concerned about soy. “The health risks associated with soy products far outweigh any potential benefit,” she writes.
Breeds prone to food allergy
While there isn’t any scientific literature on which breeds are most susceptible to food allergies, the following breeds are the most commonly googled along with the search term “food allergies” or “dog food allergies”.
- Golden Retrievers
- German Shepherds
- Cocker Spaniels
- Shih Tzus
- Westies (aka West Highland White Terriers)
- Yorkies (aka Yorkshire Terriers)
Food allergy testing for dogs
If you suspect your dog is suffering from a food allergy, the first thing to do is talk to your vet about how to pinpoint the allergen. There are commercial skin and blood allergy tests on the market, and your vet may recommend starting there. You can read about one owner’s experience of this testing here.
However, there’s no evidence yet to show that these tests are accurate, so the most thorough way to discover which foods your pet is allergic to is an elimination diet.
“What we do is take the dog off all the foods it’s eating and we put him on a food that he’s never had before. … I’ve sent people out for alligator and yak. Once the dog has improved, we start reintroducing the old foods that we think caused the problems in the first place. If he has a reaction, which usually takes a few days to a few weeks, then we know he has a food allergy.”
How to feed a dog with food allergies
Once you’ve determined the offending items in your dog’s diet, the next step is avoiding them as much as possible. You can use prescription food from your veterinarian, make your own food from scratch, or you can try a limited ingredient diet. A roundup of quality limited-ingredient foods for dogs with allergies can be found here.
You can also keep a look out for dog food using hydrolyzed proteins, which is a fancy way of saying that the protein is broken down molecularly so there’s nothing left of the potential allergen.
Tips for making your own dog food at home
Making your own food from scratch is hands-down the most reliable way to ensure your dog’s diet has not come into contact with anything they’re allergic to. We’ve got some healthy dog food recipes to share with you and some great dog food recipe hacks to make cooking for your dog less of a chore.
We hope this guide to dog food allergies helps you find a solution to your dog’s symptoms. As a reminder, please always talk to your vet before introducing your dog to a new food.
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