How to Identify and Treat Food Allergies in Dogs
Many dog owners do not realize that it is just as possible for a dog to develop a food allergy as for a human to do the same. In reality, dogs can develop an allergy to any ingredient in dog food, especially with frequent exposure. Dog food allergies are not always easy to identify because they don’t always present with obvious digestive symptoms – sometimes they manifest in more subtle ways. As a responsible dog owner, it is a good idea to learn the basics about food allergies in dogs so you know what to look for and how to deal with the problem, should it arise.
How Common Are Food Allergies in Dogs?
Food allergies can affect both dogs and cats, though sometimes in different ways. Dogs can develop an allergy to anything from dust, mold, and cigarette smoke to feathers, fleas, and food. Flea bite allergies and inhalant allergies are the top to causes for allergic reactions in dog – food allergies are in third place, accounting for about 10% of all allergies in dogs. In terms of allergy-related symptoms, food allergies are responsible for about 20% of cases involving itching and scratching. Dogs can also develop and intolerance or sensitivity to a particularly ingredient without it progressing to a full-blown allergy.
Though you may already know a little bit about allergies, many dog owners don’t truly understand what is happening in a dog’s body when he develops an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction is an immune response in which the body recognizes the allergen as a foreign invader and starts producing antibodies to attack it. Unfortunately, that immune response sometimes gets out of hand and can cause damage to the dog’s digestive tract in the process. Exactly how this response occurs is still not completely understood but veterinarians and pet experts have come to understand the signs of food allergies in dogs and the best ways to treat them.
What Are the Symptoms of Dog Food Allergies?
Any dog can develop a food allergy, but certain breeds tend to be more prone to food allergies – these may include the following:
- Cocker Spaniels
- German Shepherds
- Golden Retrievers
- Labrador Retrievers
- Lhasa Apso
- Miniature Schnauzer
- Shar Pei
- Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers
- Springer Spaniels
- West Highland White Terriers
Not only can any dog develop a food allergy, but dogs can develop allergies to any food ingredient. Some of the most common food allergies include wheat, dairy and beef while some of the least common ingredients are fish and rabbit. Other food allergies that tend to be fairly seen include common proteins like chicken, lamb, and eggs as well as other ingredients like soy, corn, and other grains.
The symptoms of allergies in dogs tend to overlap, to some degree, for contact and inhalant allergies as well as food allergies. Some general symptoms of allergies in dogs include the following:
- Red and itchy skin
- Moist or scabbed skin
- Frequent scratching
- Runny, itchy eyes
- Itchy skin at the base of the tail
- Red, itchy ears
- Chewing or licking the paws
- Patches of hair loss
- Crusty areas of skin
In some cases, a dog will develop gastrointestinal symptoms related to food allergies such as diarrhea or vomiting. More often, however, food allergies in dogs present with skin-related symptoms. Many dogs with food allergies will develop red, itchy, and inflamed skin. In response to the itching, dogs will sometimes constantly scratch or lick their skin and paws. Over time, this can lead to hot spots or patches of hair loss. Any allergy can cause skin-related symptoms, but one of the tell-tale signs that the allergy is food-related is if the dog develops recurrent ear infections or yeast infections. It may also be evidence of a food allergy if your dog is treated for infection with antibiotics but the infection recurs after you stop the antibiotic treatment.
How to Identify and Treat Dog Food Allergies
Though it can sometimes be tricky to isolate an allergy in dogs, the process of diagnosing a food allergy is pretty straightforward. In most cases, it is simply a matter of elimination. Flea allergies, intestinal parasite infections, yeast infections, bacterial infections, and sarcoptic mange can all present with symptoms similar to food allergies. Once your veterinarian is able to rule out any of these causes for your dog’s symptoms, it should be fairly clear that a food allergy is to blame.
Blood tests are generally not helpful in diagnosing food allergies, nor are any other laboratory tests. The primary method for identifying a food allergy for dogs is a food trial that involves using an elimination diet. A food trial usually involves feeding your dog a food that is made with a novel source of protein and carbohydrate for a period of at least 12 weeks or until all signs of the food allergy disappear. A novel food is simply something your dog has never eaten before. During the 12-week feeding trial, you should avoid feeding your dog the following foods:
- Pig ears
- Cow hooves
- Flavored plastic toys
- Flavored medications
These products can contain food allergens, even if they aren’t listed on the label, so you need to be careful. If you want to give your dog a treat, find one that is made with same ingredients as your dog’s elimination diet. You should also avoid giving your dog table scraps during the 12-week food trial. At the end of the 12 weeks you can choose to keep feeding your dog the elimination diet if you are happy with the results or you can try to identify the specific allergen by re-introducing common allergens one at a time to see how your dog responds. Once you’ve identified the allergen, all you have to do is feed your dog a pet food that is free from that ingredient.
Tips for Choosing a Limited Ingredient Diet
When it comes time to choose an elimination diet for your dog, your best bet is to find a high-quality Limited Ingredient Diet (LID). A Limited Ingredient Diet is exactly what it sounds like – a product made with a limited number of main ingredients. By limiting the number of primary ingredients in any given pet food product you can reduce the risk for triggering food allergies. These products also tend to be made with novel proteins and carbohydrates, another important quality for your dog’s elimination diet. As is true for any pet food product, however, there are examples of both high-quality and poor-quality products on pet store shelves so you need to take the time to evaluate the quality of any specific product before you buy it.
So, how do you identify a high-quality Limited Ingredient Diet? The same way you would determine the quality of any other pet food product. Start by checking for an AAFCO statement of nutritional adequacy – this will tell you whether or not the product is considered “complete and balanced” in terms of your dog’s minimum nutritional needs. Next, take a look at the guaranteed analysis to see how much protein, fat, and fiber is in the product. You want to protein content to be as high as possible (minimum 18%) and the fat to be moderate (minimum 5%) with no more than 5% crude fiber. Finally, check the ingredients list to ensure that a high-quality source of animal protein is listed first and complemented by digestible carbohydrates, healthy fats, and other beneficial ingredients.
The Top 4 Brands of Limited Ingredient Diet Dog Food
Shopping for a Limited Ingredient Diet for your dog is no different than shopping for a traditional dog food, you just have different requirements that the product needs to meet. Many of the top-rated dog food brands on the market offer Limited Ingredient Diets but there are some that specialize in this type of dog food. Here are our top recommendations for brands that specialize in Limited Ingredient Diets:
If you are looking for a dog food brand that offers a large selection of product choices, Pinnacle isn’t it. However, if you’re looking for a brand that specializes in limited ingredient diets, Pinnacle should be one of your top choices. This brand offers holistic pet nutrition in the form of simple, grain-free dog foods made with a limited list of ingredients. Pinnacle claims that their products are “formulated for the total health and wellbeing of your dog” and you can tell that this is true just by looking at the ingredients they use. Not only does Pinnacle use high-quality ingredients, but each of their formulas is meticulously cooked and precisely prepared to ensure that the full value of those ingredients remains intact for your dog’s nutritional benefit. In terms of their product offerings, Pinnacle has six dry food recipes and five canned food options to choose from. Their dry food formulas feature premium proteins like salmon, chicken, turkey, trout and duck with wholesome carbohydrates like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peas. Their canned food recipes are made with the same high-quality ingredients in moisture-rich formulas.
- Blue Buffalo Basics
The Blue Buffalo Company is known as one of the leaders of the natural pet food industry. This company is family-owned and -operated and they use only the highest quality ingredients in each of their formulas. Blue Buffalo offers four distinct product lines as well as a line of veterinary diets. Included in their product lineup is the Basics line of limited ingredient diets. Blue Buffalo Basics line is designed specifically for dogs that are sensitive or allergic to the ingredients used in traditional pet foods. The entire product line is healthy and holistic, made with a limited number of main ingredients and supplemented to ensure complete and balanced nutrition. All of the recipes in the Basics line are free from corn, wheat, dairy, soy, and eggs as well as by-products, fillers, and artificial additives. Blue Buffalo Basics includes a wide variety of dry food, wet food, and dog treats made with single-source animal proteins like duck, turkey, salmon, and lamb as well as wholesome and grain-free carbohydrates like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and brown rice. You will also be glad to know that every recipe includes Blue Buffalo’s LifeSource bits, a proprietary blend of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to ensure complete and balanced nutrition for dogs in all life stages.
- Natural Balance
The Natural Balance pet food company was founded in 1989 and has been producing high-quality, natural pet foods for nearly thirty years. This brand creates what they call “food for a lifetime,” offering a variety of products made with premium ingredients designed to nourish your dog’s body from the inside out. Natural Balance dog foods consist of carefully selected formulas featuring unique proteins, complex carbohydrates, nourishing fruits and vegetables, and healthy supplements, all designed with the health and safety of your pet as the first priority. When it comes to their dog food products, Natural Balance has quite a variety of choices in dry food, wet food, fresh food, and treats. They offer several categories of food as well including grain-free, healthy weight, healthy digestion, high-protein, and vegetarian formula. There is also a dedicated line of Limited Ingredient Diets. For their Limited Ingredient Diets lineup, Natural Balance has thirteen dry food recipes and seven wet food recipes to choose from. Their products feature premium proteins like chicken, lamb, venison, buffalo and duck as well as digestible carbohydrates like brown rice, sweet potato, potatoes, and legumes.
- Acana Singles
The Acana brand of dog food is known for producing biologically appropriate pet foods – that is, pet foods designed to mimic the natural evolutionary diet of wild cats and dogs. Every one of Acana’s products follows five natural rules – rich in meat and protein, high in fresh meat, abundant in a variety of meats, designed with WholePrey ratios, and limited in carbohydrate content. Each formula is designed around premium-quality proteins with no high-glycemic carbohydrates, vegetable proteins, or artificial additives. In terms of their products, Acana offers three lines of dry dog food and one line of dog treats. The Acana Heritage line includes three recipes designed in celebration of the brand’s 25-year tradition of using fresh, regional ingredients. The Acana Regionals line features four recipes made with regional ingredients including 70% meat. The Acana Singles line is their line of limited ingredient diets and it includes four recipes featuring premium proteins like lamb, duck, pork, and wild mackerel with gluten-free and grain-free carbohydrates. These recipes are also infused with freeze-dried liver for flavor and nutrition and supplemented with pumpkin and squash for digestive health. Each recipe is loaded with healthy nutrition and natural flavor.
Whether you are trying to help your dog recover from a food allergy or you are looking for a product that doesn’t contain his allergen, a limited ingredient diet might be the way to go. Keep in mind that you still need to take the time to evaluate the quality of any pet food product you purchase, even if it is marketed as an LID. To help you get started in your search for a limited ingredient dog food, consider one of our top-rated picks reviewed above.