Recent studies suggest that up to 15% of dogs suffer from some food allergies,1 making it a significant health issue among our canine companions.
Understanding and managing these allergies is important not only to improve the well-being of our dogs but also to prevent more serious health issues down the road.
Dogs experience three primary types of allergies: food allergies, environmental allergies, and flea allergy dermatitis — but food allergies are the most common and serious ones. According to a recent study, “up to 35% of cases of non-seasonal canine pruritus (skin itching) were due to a food reaction.”2 If nothing else, this highlights the importance of paying attention to diet as a way to manage allergies.
The symptoms of dog allergies, especially food allergies, can vary widely from dog to dog, so it’s sometimes hard to even realize your dog has an allergy. Many dogs with food allergies are constantly itchy, which leads to incessant scratching, skin damage, and infections. 3
Many dogs with allergies also experience frequent ear problems, including irritation, inflammation, and infection. Left unattended, these can lead to hearing issues.
For other dogs, the main symptom of a food allergy is gastrointestinal problems such as chronic diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive upsets. In addition to making life quite miserable for your dogs, these symptoms can lead to more serious issues, including dehydration and nutrient malabsorption.
Chronic allergies can also cause emotional and behavioral issues because the dog is in constant distress and agitation.
Once you understand the types and symptoms of allergies in dogs, you will be more prepared to take proactive steps to enhance the well-being of your furry companion.
Veterinarians use two main types of pet allergy tests to accurately diagnose allergies in dogs: blood tests and skin tests.
According to Today's Veterinary Practice, the diagnostic process for dogs showing allergy symptoms usually begins with a physical examination, where the vet might look for skin irritation, redness in the ears, and itching. From there, the vet can then decide to try some skin tests, where the dog's skin is exposed to various allergens, and reactions are observed.
For dogs showing gastrointestinal signs, vets could then order a complete blood count, urinalysis, and complete fecal analysis. Sometimes ultrasound and X-rays are used to rule out other causes of GI symptoms before a diagnosis of allergies can be made.
Special serum testing for food allergies (measuring IgE or IgG antibodies against foods) is available, but the process is very expensive and, unfortunately, often leads to false-positive or false-negative results, making it less reliable. If your dog has a serious allergy, consider talking to a specialist rather than a general vet to decide what tests would be best for your pooch.
The elimination diet trial — also known as the elimination-challenge diet trial or ECDT — is a relatively easy but long and slow home testing of food allergies for dogs. Simply put, it’s a 4-phase process —eliminate, challenge, confirm, and identify— to help determine what ingredients your dog is allergic to.
ECDT involves feeding the dog a diet with limited ingredients, usually consisting of proteins and carbohydrates that the dog has never tried before. By eliminating common allergens and introducing new, less allergenic food sources, this diet might be able to reset the dog’s immune response.
This home-based approach offers many benefits. For starters, it’s very affordable compared to professional dog allergy tests. It also allows dog owners to take an active role in identifying their pet's food sensitivities in a controlled environment — but only if you’re ready to commit to the process. 4
You start by selecting a novel diet, which usually includes less common meats like venison, rabbit, or kangaroo (must be meats your dog has not tried before), and carbohydrates like sweet potato or peas. Today’s Veterinary Practice recommends using “veterinary therapeutic limited-ingredient diets, veterinary therapeutic hydrolyzed-protein diets, or complete and balanced home-cooked diets,” as these are the only options you can be absolutely sure have not been cross-contaminated with potential allergens.
After a gradual transition to the new diet (over 5-7 days), pets must adhere strictly to it for up to 12 weeks. This means dogs should not eat anything else (no treats, no flavored medications, dental chews, or crumbs picked up from the ground) outside of the elimination diet until gastrointestinal and skin symptoms start to improve significantly.
With allergy symptoms now significantly reduced from Phase 1, now it’s time to slowly reintroduce the original diet and watch for the reappearance of allergy symptoms (itchiness, diarrhea). If the allergen is present in the food, symptoms might return within just a couple of days, but experts recommend waiting for up to two weeks to confirm a flare-up of symptoms.
Now that you know something in the original diet is potentially causing an allergic reaction, switch back to the elimination diet and wait for the clinical signs to disappear again. This confirms your suspicion that it’s the diet causing the allergic symptoms and not something in the environment.
At this point, it’s necessary to identify which ingredient in the original diet needs to be avoided. To do this, one new ingredient can be introduced at a time. This is especially important for dogs that usually eat complex diets with many ingredients.
This will allow you to better identify the exact allergens — if your dog experiences symptoms when reintroducing an ingredient, this suggests that ingredient is likely the reason behind your dog’s allergy.
To do this, keep your dog on the elimination diet and add one single previously fed ingredient in very small quantities (less than 10% of your dog's total daily calories). Stay with that ingredient for two weeks and watch for allergy symptoms to appear. If no symptoms appear, you can keep that ingredient and try adding another new one. Anything that triggers symptoms should be excluded from your dog’s diet permanently.
Elimination diet trials only work if you truly commit to excluding 100 percent of other foods and treats during the 8 to 10-week period. It also requires significant patience and vigilance from the pet owner. The process can also be time-consuming, as in many cases you might need to prepare home-cooked meals to meet the trial's requirements.
A final word of warning: it’s important that the elimination diet you choose is nutritionally complete and balanced, to maintain your dog's overall health during the trial period. When in doubt, talk to a veterinarian o veterinary nutritionist to ensure that the diet meets your dog's dietary needs.
Diet plays an important and complicated role in both causing and controlling allergies in dogs. For example, have you ever wondered “Can dogs be allergic to chicken” or “Can dogs be allergic to peanut butter”? The answer is yes, a large number of common foods are linked to food allergies in dogs — but the difficult part is pinpointing what food exactly your dog might be allergic to.
One of the major issues when it comes to commercial dog food is that most contain a mix of proteins and animal products, so it’s difficult to figure out which ingredient exactly is causing the allergy. For example, a recent study looking at food and allergens showed that “the most frequently reported food allergens involved in CAFRs in dogs were beef (34 %), dairy products (17 %), chicken (15 %), wheat (13 %) and lamb (14, 5 %). Other less commonly reported offending food sources were soy (6 %), corn (4 %), egg (4 %), pork (2 %), fish and rice (2 % each).” 5
Commercial dog food often contains poor-quality ingredients, including an excessive number of components and ingredients from unknown sources. This complexity of ingredients can make it challenging to identify specific allergens when a dog shows symptoms of an allergy. In addition, kibble often includes fillers, artificial colors, and preservatives, which are not only unnecessary for a dog's diet but can also worsen allergic reactions.
Another big issue with kibble is the manufacturing process, which includes high heat that can change the structure of proteins — which in some cases could cause the dog's immune system to react negatively to these proteins. A recent study showed that “Dry pet food production consists of several processes that can have different effects on nutrient bioavailability and digestibility.” 6
In the end, the important thing to remember is that diet has a significant impact on your dog’s health and well-being — and that includes any potential allergies. Even more important, the quality of ingredients in your dog’s food and how that food is prepared can also be directly related to your dog’s allergies. The lesson? We should all think carefully about what our dogs eat, especially if they have or we suspect they might have food allergies. Choosing dog foods that are high-quality, less processed, and have fewer and more natural ingredients can help in controlling these allergies.
Gently cooked, personalized diets like those offered by Cola’s Kitchen can be particularly beneficial for dogs with allergies. Because these diets typically feature a limited number of high-quality ingredients, they reduce the risk of allergic reactions.
Limited ingredients not only simplify the diet, but they also make it easier to identify potential allergens if your dog already has allergies. Plus, high-quality ingredients are less likely to contain allergens and are more digestible for dogs. Have a dog with a specific dietary need? Fresh food diets allow for easy personalization that takes into account any known allergies or sensitivities.
At Cola’s Kitchen, we use only fresh, whole ingredients in our meal plans. This not only makes the food taste a lot better, but it also preserves the nutritional value of the ingredients. And because all our diets are formulated to meet the specific nutritional requirements and allergy needs of individual dogs, you’ll never have to worry about hidden chemicals or poor-quality ingredients that could make your allergic dog sick.