Dog food allergies are very similar to food allergies seen in people. When a dog is allergic to a specific food, their immune system identifies that particular food ingredient as harmful. When that happens, the body creates defensive antibodies to attack the invading particles (food), and it can make your dog quite sick. Approximately 10 percent of dogs suffer from food allergies at some point in their lives and while they can be difficult to first identify, they are very easy to treat.
Difference Between Food Allergies and Food Intolerances in Dogs
Some dogs may vomit or experience diarrhea shortly after eating a specific food, such as dairy, leading many pet owners to believe that they’ve developed an allergy to the food. However, it could instead be a food intolerance. Food intolerance in dogs is very similar to a person experiencing indigestion or heartburn after eating spicy food. While it will be uncomfortable and it’s best for dogs to stay away from foods they’re intolerant to, it’s not the same as a food allergy.
Food allergies are genuine allergies, meaning the body actually attacks the protein. When a dog eats a food they’re allergic to, they will have the classic symptoms such as a rash on the skin. If food allergies are present, a genetic predisposition to the allergy will also most likely be present.
Difference Between Cause and Triggers
While many pet owners may say that eggs “cause” allergies in their pet, eggs are actually just the triggers. The cause may be anything from inheriting the allergy from a parent, which is the most common cause of food allergies in dogs, to environmental factors. Giving dogs antibiotics at a young age has also been shown to be a possible cause of food allergies, as they can destroy the bacterial flora in the gut, which is the largest immune system in the body.
It’s important for pet owners to understand that the cause of food allergies is the reason why the pet is allergic to certain foods. Triggers are the actual foods that will “trigger” an allergic reaction.
Some of the most common food allergy triggers in dogs are:
- Dairy products
- Chicken eggs
Unfortunately, many of these common triggers are also some of the most common ingredients found in dog food. Because of this, dogs that have either intolerance or an allergy may need to have foods such as rice made for them. There are also hypoallergenic dog foods available for pets that omit many of these common trigger foods.
Symptoms of Dog Food Allergies
The symptoms of food allergies in dogs are very similar to allergic reactions of other types. The primary symptom is itchy skin on the face, feet, ears, forelegs, armpits, and the anus. Dogs may move their head up and down against furniture to scratch and relieve the itch. Areas where the dog has licked or bitten themselves to scratch may be bald, discolored, and irritated. Other symptoms may include:
- Chronic ear infections
- Hair loss
- Excessive scratching
- Hot spots on the skin
- Skin infections that may respond to antibiotics but return once antibiotics are stopped
- Increased amount of bowel movements, up to 5 a day
- Yeast infections
- Severe skin problems, especially in puppies
Diagnosing Food Allergies in Dogs
In order to determine that the allergy is actually a food allergy and not atopy, flea bite allergies, or intestinal parasite sensitivities, the dog must be placed on a food trial. This is a trial that lasts for a full 12 weeks, and one in which the dog is to be fed a novel food, meaning a protein and a carbohydrate, that they’ve never had before. These can include venison and potato or rabbit and rice, two combinations that have been found to be very hypoallergenic for dogs.
While on the diet, the dog must eat nothing else. This means no treats, no flavored medication, and no toys that can turn into treats such as pigs’ ears. It’s even advised that while a dog is on a food trial, they even be kept out of the room at mealtime. Even eating the smallest scrap that falls from the table can be enough to null the food trial and leave the results useless.
Once the 12 weeks of the food trial are over, the dog can then be placed back on their regular diet. If the symptoms of a food allergy return, making a diagnosis of food allergies is easy.
Treating Food Allergies in Dogs
Treating food allergies in dogs is even easier than diagnosing them. The only way to do is through complete avoidance. While the dog is still suffering from irritated skin and other allergy symptoms, a vet may prescribe fatty acids, antihistamines, and steroids, but the reactions will not stop unless the food is kept away from the dog completely.
While commercial dog foods are available for dogs with food allergies, pet owners might get a better understanding of their dog’s allergies by making them homemade food. By doing so, you can start with a very bland diet and gradually add in ingredients that will be nutritious for the dog, and make their diet more balanced (and appetizing!) Remember that if you make your dog’s food yourself, you might want to speak with your vet about adding supplements to make their meals even more nutritious.
Dog food allergies can show up at any time, and don’t target any one specific breed. If you suspect that your dog may have allergies, it’s important that you take them to the vet right away. Even if the allergies aren’t life-threatening, identifying the triggers and eliminating them from your dog’s diet will help them lead a healthier and happier life.