If your pup is chewing, scratching, and gnawing on their paws incessantly, you might begin to suspect they are suffering from a dog food allergy. Here are the best and most effective ways to tell if your dog has a food allergy and how to manage it.
But dog food allergies are not as common as you might think.
It’s far more likely that your dog’s discomfort is due to fleas, allergies to fleas, and environmental allergies (dust mites, pollen, grasses, mold, cleaning chemicals, perfumes in detergent or shampoo, etc), or another common culprit, food sensitivity (aka intolerance). They all share many of the same symptoms.
In the case of a dog food allergy or sensitivity, your dog’s reaction is likely something that has developed over time. What may have been perfectly fine to eat a year ago may now cause a problem—one that’s important to identify. The long-term effects, if untreated, could lead to behavioral changes and reduced quality of life (due to prolonged discomfort), as well as worsening symptoms.
So, familiarizing yourself with dog food allergy (and sensitivity) is the first step in solving the problem and keeping your pup healthy and happy.
Knowing the difference between a dog food allergy and sensitivity
These two food-related issues share many of the same symptoms, but most often dog food allergy symptoms appear swiftly and involve itchy skin or ear and skin infections due to the body’s natural inflammatory response. Less frequently, pups will have a gastrointestinal reaction causing vomiting or diarrhea. But some unlucky pups will have both skin and tummy issues related to their dog food allergy.
If your pup suffers from dog food sensitivity (as opposed to an allergy), they’re much more likely to experience gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea, vomiting, gas, lack of appetite, and weight loss) due to an inability to process an ingredient properly. They may also have intermittent itchy skin or redness that seems to resolve only to return again.
The causes behind a dog food allergy
When your dog has an allergic reaction, it’s because their immune system has misidentified a protein in their dog food as an invader and mounted an attack.
But it isn’t the food itself, rather the protein structure in it. And it’s not just meat; some veggies contain protein, so they’re not automatically safe.
Topping the list of culprits are proteins most commonly found in dog food, like beef, chicken, eggs, and dairy. But an allergy to one meat protein won’t necessarily mean an allergy to other seemingly similar sources. For example, if your dog is allergic to chicken, they may be fine with turkey.
Pure fats, like pure fish oil, are free of protein and shouldn’t trigger a response. But traces of protein can sneak into oils and fats during manufacturing, and this can be enough to cause a reaction in a highly allergic dog. With fats, purity is key.
And while dogs can be allergic to plant-sourced ingredients like corn, wheat, soy, and grains, they’re actually less common allergens than many people believe, and much less common than meat allergies. But it does happen. Starches are low in or free of protein, which means dogs usually aren’t allergic to them.
How to recognize a dog food allergy
If your pup is chewing or scratching excessively (commonly the face, feet, ears, forelegs, armpits, and anus), rubbing their face with their paws or against furniture, or licking and chewing their paws till they’re swollen, they may be reacting to something in their diet. About 20% of the itching and scratching in pups is due to a dog food allergy (or sensitivity).
However, there are a few additional dog food allergy symptoms that could reveal a food-related problem.
One is that your dog has recurrent (chronic) ear problems, particularly yeast infections. Another tip-off is if their itchy skin doesn’t respond to steroid treatment, or they have skin infections that respond to antibiotics but reoccur after antibiotics are discontinued.
Other food allergy symptoms include:
- Red, itchy, inflamed ears, frequent head shaking
- Hair loss
- Hives, skin rash, or inflamed skin
- Open sores or hot spots
- Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath
- Runny, red, or itchy eyes
- Runny or stuffy nose, sneezing
- Odor from feet or ears (due to secondary bacterial or yeast infections)
- Stomach upset, gas, vomiting, diarrhea
Some pups may even have an increase in bowel movements—up to 3 or more times per day, though this is a less common symptom.
Managing your dog’s food allergy or sensitivity
Atopy, flea bite allergies, intestinal parasite hypersensitivities, sarcoptic mange, and yeast or bacterial infections can all cause symptoms similar to dog food allergies and food sensitivity. So, your vet will want to rule out all potential health issues before taking the first step—testing for food-related problems.
STEP 1: Identify the Allergen
Once you and your vet have ruled out other potential causes, you’ll want to begin an elimination trial (aka limited-ingredient diet). By placing your pup on a strict diet, you can slowly introduce ingredients back into mealtime while watching for a reaction to pinpoint the allergen.
There are a few ways to approach the elimination trial:
- Carefully prepare a home-cooked diet designed by a board-certified pet nutritionist, typically containing one protein and one carb (your pup has never eaten before), plus essential fats, vitamins, and minerals.
- Serve a vet-prescribed, hydrolyzed diet, where the proteins are broken down into tiny pieces that will not likely cause a reaction.
- Feed your pup, a ‘novel ingredient’ diet using less-common proteins like venison, rabbit, or duck instead of beef or chicken.
Your pup will need to remain on this restricted diet for at least a month (to clear their symptoms) before reintroducing ingredients one at a time.
And be sure to test all the ingredients they normally eat and not stop the test once you’ve identified one culprit. Where there’s one allergy, there may be more. It’s estimated that more than a third of dogs with a food allergy will react to more than one ingredient.
STEP 2: Control Your Dog’s Diet
Once you’ve identified that your pup has a dog food allergy (or sensitivity), it’s best not to rush out and pick up gluten-free, allergen-free, or grain-free dog food and expect positive results. Even food labeled “limited ingredients” won’t likely address your dog’s allergy. Commercial food labels aren’t always accurate—a high percentage contain unlabeled ingredients.
The only sure-fire way to treat a dog food allergy is by identifying the ingredients your pup reacts to and removing them from their diet. Depending on your lifestyle, there are a few ways to approach sourcing the best dog food for your pup.
How to control the ingredients in your dog’s diet
- Prepare a homemade, fresh dog food formulated by a pet nutritionist to ensure the proper balance of protein, calories, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
- Order through a dog food delivery service that specializes in high quality, personalized dog food for your pup’s specific sensitivities and dietary restrictions.
- Purchase a healthy dog food from the pet store after carefully reviewing the ingredients and researching the brand.
If you decide to purchase healthy dog food for your pup through your local pet supply store, there are a few things you’ll want to watch out for.
Read the label—all of it. Pet foods are like human foods; all of the ingredients must be listed on the label. And while the ingredients may not sound tasty to us, Fido actually loves things like liver and fat. They’re descended from wolves after all. What’s important is that you know exactly what’s in the food. For example, if your dog is allergic to chicken, avoid anything with the word chicken or poultry—even fats and flavors. If something is generically listed (i.e., liver or heart or animal fat), call the company to ask what animal it was derived from.
Verify the ‘real’ protein source. If you see the word flavor (i.e., Lamb Flavor and Rice), it’s likely that the main protein is something other than lamb, like chicken. You may inadvertently feed your pup something they react to.
Watch out for natural flavoring as an ingredient. Many natural flavors are made from animal meat or organs. This means that the dog food may contain a protein you pup is sensitive or allergic to and should be avoided. Call the company and ask for the source of the flavor; if they don’t tell you, don’t buy it.
Check the fat source. Often chicken fat or tallow is used in pet foods as a source of fatty acids. While fat does not contain protein, some highly food-allergic dogs could react if there are traces of protein in the fat. This can happen even if good manufacturing processes were followed. In this case, a vegetable source for fat should be considered (i.e. canola, sunflower). Again, if it just says “vegetable oil”, call and ask the company. It could be corn based, and if your dog is allergic to corn, you may not want to buy that food.
If you cannot find an off-the-shelf or customized dog food that doesn’t contain your pups allergen, please work with your vet. There are many prescription diets available ranging from highly-exotic meats to hydrolyzed proteins that do not trigger an immune response. For some dogs, hydrolyzed protein-based foods are the only option.
No matter how you approach your pup’s mealtime to manage their food sensitivity or dog food allergy, remember to always introduce a new diet slowly. Even after you’ve found the healthiest dog food to support your dog’s allergies, their gastrointestinal system needs time to adjust. But serving the best dog food, designed for your dog’s dietary needs will lead to a much happier, healthier life.