So, your beloved pet is itching like crazy, biting himself all over, constantly shaking his head, and you even notice patches of fur missing. At first you think he might have fleas, but you’re always diligent with your monthly flea & tick treatment. So you rush him to the vet, and hear something new: you dog might have food allergies.
What is a Dog Food Allergy?
What does this mean exactly, and how in the world do you treat it? Well, allergies in both humans and dogs, in short, begin close to the same way. An allergic reaction happens when a dog’s (or human’s) immune system misinterprets a protein coming from a certain ingredient (n the case of food allergies) as a harmful foreign invader, and either attacks it or mounts some other kind of immune response.
Thankfully, dog food allergies are rarely life threatening, but can cause a wealth of irritating symptoms. Dog food allergies are actually caused by a genetic problem, and is triggered by initial exposure to the allergen. The most common dog food allergens are:
About 10% of all allergy cases in dogs are food related.
Dogs usually react to food allergens differently than a human might. With humans, we often hear of horrible cases where a person’s airway closes, and they might need extreme drugs like Epinephrine to stay alive. In dogs, on the other hand, an allergic reaction often appears in the form of irritated, itchy or inflamed skin, or sometimes produces gastrointestinal issues like vomiting or diarrhea.
In some very rare cases, food allergies can send a dog into anaphylaxis (severe, life threatening allergic reaction), similar to a human suffering from a severe reaction to a bee sting, although that is very uncommon.
Common Signs & Symptoms of Food Allergies:
- Swelling of the face, ears, lips, eyelids, or earflaps
- Red, inflamed skin
- Itchy ears
There are several food allergy symptoms listed here, but the most common sign you will see is non-seasonal itching, usually focused on either the entire body or limited to the ears and feet. You might see chronic or recurrent skin infections. It does take time for food allergies to develop, and they usually aren’t immediate; your dog could have been eating the same food for a while without any reactions.
A ‘food trial’ with a hypoallergenic dog food, like the ones listed below, is the best and most common way to diagnose a food allergy. These trials use a ‘novel’ protein source, which is hopefully something completely new to your dog or different from what he has had before. This reduces the chance of an immune response, hopefully eliminating the specific protein causing the allergic reaction.
Hydrolyzed diets, in addition, are created when animal proteins are broken down into much smaller molecules, making it difficult for the immune system to recognize harmful allergens and drastically reducing the chances of an allergic reaction.
How are Dog Food Allergies Treated?
So, your dog is allergic to a certain ingredient in his food. You certainly don’t want to keep feeding him that food! The first step, and only one needed really, is eliminating that particular ingredient from his food. Since most dog foods are composed of many ingredients, the easiest way to do this is narrowing down those ingredients from many to a few.
Limited Ingredient Dog Food
In order to offer a wide range of nutrients, manufacturers often use many ingredients in their foods. In this case, it can actually be harmful to offer so many- at least until we figure out what the ‘culprit’ is, so you veterinarian might prescribe a ‘Limited Ingredient Dog Food’. These are exactly how they sound, foods with fewer ingredients meant to help treat a dog’s sensitive stomach.
First, your veterinarian will prescribe a certain limited ingredient food. If that doesn’t do the trick, they will switch to an alternate food made from different ingredients, and so on.
There are many limited ingredient foods out there, but most of them are lower quality and cheaply manufactured. Below, we’ve listed five quality names, known for producing good, nutritional dog foods.
Some Limited Ingredient Dog Foods:
Canidae Grain-Free Pure Limited Ingredient Diet
Earthborn Holistic Venture Turkey Meal and Butternut Squash Limited Ingredient Diet
Merrick Limited Ingredient Diet Grain Free Salmon & Sweet Potato
Nulo Freestyle Limited Plus Puppy and Adult Dog Food
Wellness Simple Limited Ingredient Diet
Food Intolerance vs. Food Allergy
When most people think their dog is having an allergic reaction to food, the culprit is actually food intolerance. A food intolerance doesn’t involve an immune response, and doesn’t stimulate histamines. For example, some dogs might be ‘lactose intolerant’, meaning a dog’s body won’t process the lactose found in milk well. Many humans are lactose intolerant also. These intolerances can lead to GI issues.
A study done in 2017 estimated that out of all dogs seeing a veterinarian for any issue, only about 1-2% actually had a food allergy or intolerance. That being said, it isn’t very common. Even then, true food allergies are less common than intolerances.
Meat, dairy and eggs are probably the most common allergens in dog food. It’s usually a protein in these foods that is the problem, not the food itself. In the wild, animal meat makes up most of a dog or wolve’s diet, so you can assume how rare an allergy to it would be.
Conclusion: What to Do?
You see your dog itching constantly, acting strange; his behavior is actually starting to change. What should you do if you think your pup might have a dog food allergy? Bring your pooch in for an exam, and talk this over with your veterinarian! Your vet has the knowledge and experience needed to develop the absolute best plain of attack for your pet’s ‘itchy issue’!