Dog Food Allergies: Symptoms and Solutions

By: Dr. Laura Duclos

Reactions to a specific food account for about ten percent of all allergies seen in dogs, and while dog food allergies do occur, they’re not very common. The truth is, food sensitivity, health issues, and environmental allergies are far more likely culprits behind your pup’s discomfort.

Dog food allergies exhibit many of the same symptoms as environmentally-triggered allergies, such as chewing or scratching excessively. While food sensitivity can exhibit those same symptoms, more often, it results in tummy issues. Some unlucky pups will have symptoms common to both food-related issues.

While some dog breeds have a genetic predisposition to inherit specific food allergies or food sensitivities, more often it’s an issue 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. 

But, before you jump to the conclusion that your pup has a dog food allergy, consult with your vet. You’ll want to rule out all other potential health issues first, including atopy, flea bite allergies, intestinal parasite hypersensitivities, sarcoptic mange, and yeast or bacterial infections.


Photo Credit: Virgin Experience Days
Photo Credit: Virgin Experience Days


Spotting Dog Food Allergies and Sensitivity

While these food-related issues can share many of the same symptoms, they plague pups for different reasons.

Dog Food Sensitivity: Food sensitivities are non-immunologic adverse responses to food, due to an inability to metabolize an ingredient properly. Some pups will have a gastrointestinal reaction to a specific meat protein, dairy protein, gluten protein, or carbohydrate. In most cases, it’s the meat and dairy protein in their diet that’s at the root of the issue.

Dog Food Allergy: An allergic reaction to food happens when your dog’s immune system misidentifies a protein in their diet as an invader and mounts an attack. It isn’t the food itself, but rather the protein structure in it. And it’s not just meat; some veggies contain protein, so they’re not automatically safe. 


Photo Credit:
Photo Credit:


The Most Common Symptoms of a Dog Food Allergy

Excessively chewing or scratching, rubbing their face, or licking and chewing their paws till they’re swollen are common signs that your dog may have a dog food allergy.

Other dog 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 will have recurrent (chronic) ear problems, particularly yeast infections. Other dogs may have itchy skin that doesn’t respond to steroid treatment or skin infections that respond to antibiotics but reoccur after antibiotics are discontinued. 

Food sensitivity can exhibit many of the same symptoms as mentioned above, but more often than not, it will produce a gastrointestinal reaction: diarrhea, vomiting, gas, lack of appetite, and weight loss. 


Finding Food Your Dog Can Safely Eat 

If you suspect your pup has a dog food allergy (or sensitivity), it’s best not to rush out and pick up allergen-free or grain-free dog food. Chances are it won’t produce the results you hope it will. Without knowing what your pup is reacting to, it’s unlikely you’ll successfully eliminate it from their diet. 

And grains are rarely the cause, so feeding your pup a grain-free dog food will only eliminate a nutritious, low-fat source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. While grains may not be right for every pup, high-quality whole grains possess a variety of beneficial properties that support a healthy bowel and the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. 

Only after you and your veterinarian have ruled out all other potential causes, you’ll place your dog on a limited-ingredient diet to isolate and pinpoint the allergens.

There are a few ways to approach the elimination trial:

  • Home-cooked diets designed by a board-certified veterinary 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. This should also be prescribed. It’s been shown there are contaminants in many OTC (novel protein diets) that may cause a reaction in very sensitive dogs.

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. To be safe, it’s best to remain on the diet for 12-16 weeks because different symptoms clear at different rates. 

A common reason for a missed diagnosis is not remaining on the food trial long enough. Where there’s one allergen, there may be more. It’s estimated that more than a third of dogs with a dog food allergy or sensitivity will react to more than one ingredient.  


Photo Credit: Virgin Experience Days
Photo Credit: Virgin Experience Days


Managing Your Dog’s Food Allergy or Sensitivity

The only sure-fire way to treat your pup’s food-related issue is to identify the ingredients they react to and remove them from their diet.

There are a few ways to control the ingredients in your dog’s diet:

  • Prepare a Homemade Diet: To ensure the proper balance of protein, calories, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, you’ll need to consult a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a balanced and healthy recipe you can follow.
  • Order Personalized Dog Food: There are companies that specialize in producing high quality, customized dog food for your pup’s specific sensitivities and dietary restrictions. Find a company whose food is formulated by pet nutritionists to meet every dog’s unique dietary requirements. It’s the simplest way to ensure you’re feeding your pup the healthiest dog food.
  • Purchase from the Pet Store: You’ll need to carefully review the ingredients and researching the brand to ensure that none of the ingredients are included in the recipe. If the label is unclear, you’ll want to contact the company and double-check the ingredients.

If you choose to stick with your favorite pet supply store, there are a few things you’ll want to watch out for.

Read the Label: If your dog is allergic or sensitive to chicken, avoid anything with the word chicken or poultry—even fats and flavors. And if you see the word flavor (ie, Lamb Flavor and Rice), the main protein is likely something other than lamb, like chicken. Lastly, if something is generically listed (i.e., liver or heart or animal fat), call the company and ask what animal it was derived from. 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-allergic dogs could react if there are trace proteins in the fat, even though good manufacturing processes were followed. In this case, a vegetable source of 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 or sensitive to corn, you may not want to buy that food.

For some pups, it may be challenging to find food that they don’t react to. Luckily 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 allergy, remember always to introduce a new diet slowly. Even after you’ve found the best dog food to support your pup’s food-related issues, their gastrointestinal system needs time to adjust. But serving a healthy dog food, designed for your pup’s dietary needs will lead to a much happier, healthier life.


About the Author:

Dr. Laura Duclos leads the Research and Development team at Puppo. She has over 16 years of experience in developing nutritional pet food that supports animal health and wellbeing. Her clinical research has been featured in prominent publications and scientific journals. She has been an invited speaker at numerous international veterinary conferences on pet nutrition and innovation.


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