Food allergies are becoming more and more common in dogs. Symptoms can include constant itching and scratching, poor hair coat and chronic ear and skin infections. Many pet owners don’t fully understand food allergies and how they affect their canine best friends.
It is important to distinguish between food allergies and food intolerance. Food intolerance is the result of poor digestion, such as lactose intolerance. People and dogs with lactose intolerance are either missing or have low levels of the milk digesting enzyme lactase.
Food allergies are the over-response of your dog’s immune system to an invading protein. For food allergies this protein is contained in the food or dog treats you feed your pet. Proteins are not just found in meat, there are also proteins present in grains and vegetables. Any one of these proteins has the potential to cause a food allergy.
The symptoms of food allergies can include dry itchy skin, excessive scratching or licking, bald patches, a high frequency of hot spots, ear infections, skin infections, diarrhea, and vomiting. While these symptoms may indicate food allergies, they can also be symptoms of other systemic disease. We recommend discussing all of your dog’s symptoms with your veterinarian to aid in the correct diagnosis of your pet’s condition.
Some of the breeds most prone to food allergies include: All breeds of dogs, including mixed breeds, can be prone to food allergies. However, some breeds seem to be more prone, including Boxer, Cocker Spaniel, Springer Spaniel, Collie, Dalmatian, Lhasa Apso, Miniature Schnauzer, Retriever, Shar Pei, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, Dachshund and West Highland White Terrier.
Most common food allergens: beef, dairy and wheat.
Least common food allergens: fish and rabbit.
Isolating the Problem
Once your veterinarian has diagnosed your dog with food allergies, they will likely recommend that you try a hypoallergenic diet. One way to do this is with an elimination (or “novel” protein) diet— feeding a food that has a different protein (meat) source and a different carbohydrate (grain) source than what your dog has had before. Since food allergies are triggered by an immune response to invading proteins, changing to a novel protein may be enough to eliminate the immune response from being triggered.
Your vet may also suggest that you try a hydrolyzed protein diet. These foods are made with proteins that have been processed and already broken down into pieces that are small enough that they hopefully won’t trigger an immune response.
Lamb and rice diets were at one point considered a “hypoallergenic” dog food since most commercial dog foods were made with beef, chicken, corn and wheat. However, since lamb and rice diets have been available for some time, many dogs are experiencing allergic symptoms to these foods now as well. It’s important to remember that food allergies can develop over time and your dog may benefit from a new protein source like fish and oatmeal, or duck and sweet potato.
While trying to isolate what foods your dog is allergic to, it’s important to isolate their diet to the new dog food only. This means no treats, cookies, rawhides or human food. Once your dog is on a diet that they are no longer reacting to, you can slowly reintroduce treats one at a time so you can differentiate exactly what is causing a reaction and what treats your dog is able to handle.
Preventing Food Allergies
There is no way to prevent food allergies all together; however, there are things that you can do to minimize your dog’s risk of food allergies.
Promote a healthy mucosal barrier. Malnutrition is the most common cause for a poor mucosal barrier. Ensuring that your dog or puppy receives proper nutrition and healthcare can reduce their risk of food allergies.
Promote effective protein digestion. Your dog should have no problem digesting protein. If you are feeding a homemade cooked or raw diet, grinding or blending your protein source in a food processor can be helpful in improving protein digestion. In kibble-fed dogs, the protein is already ground before it is kibbled so there is no need to grind it.
Choose a dog food with exclusive protein sources. If you start your dog on a food that has one protein source you will have more food options later if your dog develops food allergies. For example, if you dog has been on a food containing chicken and develops an allergy, they can be switched to a food that doesn’t contain chicken. Conversely, if your dog is on a food containing several protein sources (for example turkey, chicken, fish, and duck) and develops an allergy, it will be much more difficult to find a food that contains none of these protein sources.