Dog food allergies 101 - everything you need to know to help your dog. Includes a list of common symptoms, hidden sources of allergens in toys, and what you need to avoid to help your dog be happy and healthy!
Food allergies are one of the 5 most common allergies in dogs. The dog’s body overreacts to a protein (think chicken or beef) and starts to attack, thinking that it is doing the right thing. To understand more about food allergies, check out this article here.
Dog food allergies are affecting more and more dogs each year. In 2022, approximately 7% of dogs in America had one or more food allergies.
They are becoming more common and dog food brands are now making food and treats that are safe for your pup to enjoy.
This article walks you through all aspects of what are dog food allergies, what are the symptoms, how to diagnose them, what to avoid, and how best to manage treatment for your dog.
Types of Allergies in Dogs
In dogs, there are three main types of allergies: food allergies, skin allergies, and anaphylactic allergies.
Food allergies are when your dog is allergic to a specific type of food.
Skin allergies include things like indoor, environmental, and flea allergies.
Anaphylactic allergies are just like in people where your dog can have an acute anaphylactic reaction to a trigger. Bee stings and vaccine reactions are the most common causes of this. Thankfully, these reactions are extremely rare in dogs.
What are food allergies?
The technical definition of a food allergy in dogs is when the dog has become sensitive to a particular protein in their diet that causes reactions. These reactions can range from mild to severe.
Food allergies need to be discussed and diagnosed by your vet. You don’t want to make major changes to your dog’s diet without consulting a vet and removing a protein source is a major change.
There is nothing that causes food allergies in dogs, just like there is no known cause in humans. And don’t worry, food allergies are not catching so no one in your house will catch food allergies if your dog happens to have one.
Finally, food allergies can happen in both male and female dogs equally and having them neutered/spayed or intact does not affect their likelihood of developing food allergies.
Most dogs will have a reaction either immediately or a few hours after coming into contact with their allergen. Oftentimes, the reaction builds up over the course of weeks or months before appearing in symptoms.
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t notice any of these symptoms right away. The important thing is to keep track of them and make an appointment with your vet if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- Skin Issues
- Itchy skin affecting the face, feet, ears, legs, armpits, or around the anus
- Chronic or recurrent ear infections
- Hair loss
- Excessive scratching
- Hot spots
- Skin infections, especially yeast infections on the skin
- Increased bowel movements
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
- General discomfort in the abdomen
Seperate from food allergens, your dog may also be allergic to environmental allergens, such as grass pollen, dust, or mold. A major distinguisher is if these symptoms are year-round or only seasonally.
Common Dog Food Allergies
The most common allergens in dogs are:
- Dairy products
A lot of these ingredients are in a lot of dog food! Scientists and veterinarians now believe that this is not a coincidence. They believe that a food allergy is an overreaction to a specific ingredient in their food, especially if it is one they have been exposed to many times.
Allergy vs intolerance
Many times, people use these words interchangeably to describe what is happening to their dog. However, there is a slight difference between the two.
A true allergy in dogs and a food intolerance are different things, just as they are in people. For dogs, a true food allergy is one that causes itchy skin. That is because just as in humans, the food produces an immune system response of elevated IgE levels.
A food intolerance is more likely to cause a reaction of vomiting and diarrhea, as it does in humans with a food intolerance.
Thankfully, both food allergies and food intolerances can be simply solved by removing the food causing the issue.
The best way to know if your dog has food allergies is to talk with your vet. While the actual testing for food allergies is pretty straightforward, there are so many other conditions that mimic food allergies it is best to speak with a vet to eliminate those other diseases.
To test for a food allergy, you simply remove the suspected food for a minimum of 12 weeks from your dog’s diet. After this time, you add the food back into the diet and see how the dog reacts.
Now, during the food elimination phase, you must feed the dog a new, novel protein and carbohydrate. Ideally, this would be a protein your dog has never had before. Rabbit and venison are often chosen for this test as they are less common dog food flavors. There are several options on the market, and you can learn more about the best dog foods for dogs with allergies here.
Vets used to recommend that testing be only for 3 weeks to see if the dog has an allergy. However, more studies have shown that only about a quarter of dogs were improving at the 3 week mark. The majority of dogs showed an improvement at 12 weeks. So now it is considered best practice to go the full 12 weeks on an elimination diet when testing for food allergies.
Blood Test for food allergies
In addition to an elimination diet, there are blood tests, hair tests, and even saliva tests that you can have performed to see what allergies your dog has.
A simple blood draw is performed and then that blood is sent to a lab for testing. They are looking for an IgE reaction to different allergens. If something comes back with a positive, it is a possible allergen for your dog.
The cost for these tests will vary between $100 and $500 so make sure you chat with your vet about what they recommend.
However, there are many studies that show that these tests simply do not work and do not provide a reliable method for testing for food allergies. At one recent veterinary conference, they even tested the “fur” of a stuffed animal and it showed having positive reactions to food.
Most vets agree that the gold standard for testing for food allergies is to perform an elimination diet.
Food allergy testing tips
When doing a food elimination diet for your dog, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Make sure you remove any and all treats, chews, flavored medications, flavored toothpaste, and flavored toys as they may contain hidden sources of allergens
- Make sure that no food is dropped on the floor when cooking or during meal time as this can contain something your dog is allergic to
- When on walks, make sure that your dog does not get any treats or eats anything off the ground
- Keep a food journal to monitor your dog and note any changes and when they occurred
The best way to manage your dog’s food allergies is to avoid any and all forms of their allergen in their food, treats, chews, and toys.
For example, my dog is allergic to beef. He does not get any food with beef as an ingredient, eats beef free treats, does not get any rawhide, and I purchase speciality beef free chews for him to enjoy in the evenings. They are expensive so I only give them to him to enjoy being supervised for about 30 minutes in the evenings.
Antihistamines are available for dogs, however, they are not to be used as a method of controlling a food allergy. They are great medications to help with seasonal and indoor allergies for your dogs.
Finally, you can also supplement with omega-3 fatty acids, for example fish oils, to help your dog’s immune system.
Most dogs respond to a new diet without their allergen in 12 weeks. You should see them improve in their temperament, less skin issues, fewer ear infections, etc. If you don’t see an improvement after 12 weeks, it is possible that your dog is allergic to more than one food, or, there is a different underlying cause of their health.
Dog Allergy FAQ
Are some breeds more likely to have food allergies than others?
That depends. The AKC does not recognize certain breeds being more likely to have allergies over others. What is more likely is that breeders have a dog in their genetic breeding program who has/had allergies and has passed it down through their lines.
The Merck Veterinary Manual states that food allergies can occur at any point and in any breed of dog, including mixed breed dogs, but that the ones most likely to develop allergies are: Labrador Retrievers, West Highland White Terriers, and Cocker Spaniels. Another study found that Golden Retrievers, German Shepards, Chinese Shar-Peis, and Poodles are also at increased risk.
Can food allergies suddenly appear after years?
Yes. What happens is that the dog becomes sensitive to the proteins in their diet and that can trigger a food allergy, even after eating a food for years.
My dog ate beef for the first 3 years with no issues and suddenly developed a beef allergy at 3 ½ . It happens and there is no other action to take other than total removal of the allergy from their diet.