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In my time working as a small animal veterinarian, I’ve dealt with many pets with allergies. It seems our dogs’ immune systems react badly to many of the normal substances around them. Dog food for allergies can help us both diagnose and treat affected animals.
The best dog food for environmental allergies (pollen, etc.) will contain anti-inflammatory ingredients like fish oil that promote skin health. Dogs with food allergies need a strict diet that does not contain whatever food is causing their immune system to overreact.
The only way to determine whether a dog has food allergies is with a food ingredient elimination trial using a hydrolyzed or novel protein diet.
Read on to see my recommendations for specific products.
What Are Allergies in Dogs?
Most of us have used the term allergy from time to time, but what does it mean, exactly?
1: altered bodily reactivity (such as hypersensitivity) to an antigen in response to a first exposure
2: exaggerated or pathological immunological reaction (as by sneezing, difficult breathing, itching, or skin rashes) to substances, situations, or physical states that are without comparable effect on the average individualMerriam Webster Dictionary
When we talk about hypersensitivity in dogs, we’re talking about an allergic reaction by the immune system to some substance. The allergenic substance could be anything including dust mites, food protein, wool or pollen.
Environmental Allergy Is More Common Than Food Allergy
The most common cause of allergies in dogs are environmental substances like pollen (atopy) and food. The symptoms are of atopy and food allergy are very similar. Contrary to popular opinion and internet guru’s advice, atopy is a much more common cause of allergy symptoms than dog food allergy.
One study from the UK looked at the cause of allergy symptoms in 251 dogs (2). They found 32.7% of those dogs had atopy and 7.6% had food sensitivity. Another study food allergies in about 12% of all dogs with skin symptoms and 26% of dogs with allergies (7).
These studies approximate the experiences of veterinarians in general practice. Most itchy dogs have atopy, some have food sensitivities and a few have both.
Atopy and Food Allergy Symptoms Look the Same
Clinical signs of skin allergy can be caused by environmental allergens/atopy or food intolerance/allergy. It’s not possible to distinguish atopy from food allergy without diagnostic testing and an elimination diet. A firm diagnosis can take weeks to months to make. And to complicate matters, up to 30% of dogs may have both atopy and food allergies (3).
Some veterinarians believe hypoallergenic food may also help dogs that have atopy but we need more research on that topic before making broad recommendations. Fortunately, the process of properly diagnosing atopy involves ruling out food allergies with a food trial.
My experience with dog owners over the last couple of decades has taught me there are a lot of people who believe they can cure their itchy dog if they can only find the perfect food. That’s just not going to be enough in most cases. More dogs have pollen allergies than food allergies.
If you have an itchy dog, don’t make the mistake of trying to cure him with exotic foods. He may be suffering from atopy which needs a different treatment.
Diagnosing and treating dogs with allergies can be extremely complicated, confusing and frustrating for pet owners as well as veterinarians. It’s important to work as a team and follow a systematic plan to rule out the various causes of allergies. If you start changing foods and trying random treatments on your own, you’ll probably throw up your hands in frustration before you find a real solution.
Symptoms of Allergies in Dogs
In dogs, an allergic reaction can produce many different symptoms, but skin and gastrointestinal troubles are most common. Both food allergies and atopy/environmental allergies can cause many of these symptoms:
- Red skin
- Itchy skin
- Stinky skin
- Increased moisture of skin and/or ears
- Bumps, crusts and/or sores on the skin
- Bacterial and yeast infections of the skin
- Hair loss
- Thickened skin
- Itchy ears
- Chronic ear infections
- Passing a lot of gas
- Increased number of poops per day
- Diarrhea, straining to poop
- Itchy rear end
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Symptoms tend not to change with seasons
What Is Hypoallergenic Dog Food?
The word hypoallergenic means a substance that is unlikely to cause an allergic response. It is believed that dogs with food allergies react to proteins of a certain size. We also know that dogs must be exposed to a given protein for some period of time to develop an allergic immune response to it.
The most common allergen sources in dog food are beef, dairy, chicken, lamb, wheat (2,5). Therefore, most hypoallergenic dog food will not contain any of these, at least not in their natural form.
There are two types of dog food recommended by vets for a dietary elimination trial: novel protein foods and hydrolyzed foods.
Commercial Novel Protein Diets
A novel protein food contains only protein sources to which the dog has never been exposed. These days, it’s harder and harder to find proteins a dog has never had.
It used to be that fish or lamb was good enough, but so many dogs eat such a large variety of food and treats they’ve already had most of the readily available meats. Now we resort to exotic meats like ostrich and kangaroo.
Hydrolyzed Protein Diets for Dog Food Allergy
Instead of using exotic meats, hydrolyzed protein diets take common proteins like chicken and process them into smaller bits that are unrecognizable to a dog’s immune system as an allergen. Hydrolysis is kind of like pre-digesting the protein so it’s not only hypoallergenic, it’s also very easy to digest and absorb.
These innovative products are only available as RX commercial diet and are considered the gold standard food trials by many vets. They work well in most cases, however, researchers have found some dogs still have an allergic reaction to food proteins even after hydrolization (1).
Hydrolyzed foods are pretty expensive and just about as far from natural as you can get -especially the ones made from chicken feathers. However, for dogs with severe allergies, hydrolyzed diets can be lifesavers. Most dogs seem to accept them in terms of taste, but there will always be some who refuse to eat them.
Over the Counter Novel Protein Dog Food
You have probably seen some interesting food combinations offered by boutique pet food manufacturers such as kangaroo and lentils. These funky foods are made to appeal to desperate pet owners with sick or itchy dogs.
Don’t be fooled into thinking non-prescription limited ingredient dog food is equal to a novel protein veterinary diet. DNA studies of non-prescription limited ingredient dog food have shown that most contain proteins not listed on the label. (4) An OTC limited ingredient diet might be fine for a mild food intolerance but are not suitable for doing an accurate food trial.
Homemade Dog Food for Allergies
Homemade dog food for allergies allows for strict control over ingredients but they require a very committed dog owner. It takes extra time to source the supplies to make a novel ingredient dog food and prepare the dog’s diet on a regular basis. I don’t know about yours, but my local grocery store does not stock ostrich meat!
Homemade dog food is also significantly more expensive than non-prescription dry dog food. If you’re up for those challenges, I say go for it!
I strongly recommend you work with your vet or veterinary nutritionist to create a free complete and balanced hypoallergenic recipe for your dog at BalanceIT.com.
How Hypoallergenic Dog Food Is Used
As with any diet change, vets recommend a gradual change to hypoallergenic dog food over a period of 7-14 days. It’s best to do a strict food elimination trial under the direction of a vet to avoid confusion and frustration.
Food elimination trials are usually run for about 8 weeks (6) using either a hydrolyzed or novel protein diet. During the trial, no other foods can be fed to the dog, especially proteins.
The goal of an elimination diet is to remove all potentially allergenic foods and give the dog only pure hypoallergenic food. If the dog’s symptoms improve, that is positive evidence to support a diagnosis of food allergy.
A firm diagnosis requires reintroduction of the suspected allergen with recurrence of previous symptoms. Many dog owners don’t do the food reintroduction but instead, keep the dog on the hypoallergenic diet. Most commercial hypoallergenic dog food is suitable for feeding adult dogs long-term.
Where to Buy Dog Food for Allergies
We’re fortunate to have several options for purchasing hypoallergenic dog food. You can often buy a limited selection of prescription food at your vet’s clinic. Some pet food stores carry prescription dog food appropriate for a dietary elimination trial that you can buy with a written prescription from your veterinarian.
Finally, there are literally dozens of online pet food sellers who will gladly fill your vet’s prescription for food and ship it to your door. Don’t expect to save much money buying prescription dog food online, though. The prices are pretty tightly regulated by the manufacturers.
Best Dog Food for Ear Allergies
Ear allergy symptoms are associated with both atopy and food allergy. Itchy and infected ears will only benefit from hypoallergenic dog food if they’re caused by food allergy. If the ears are inflamed because of atopy, clinical signs may not improve with a hypoallergenic diet.
The general recommendations given for all food allergies should work for ear symptoms caused by food allergies. You can choose from a hydrolyzed diet, a commercial dog food based on a novel protein, or a homemade novel protein food.
Vet- Recommended Dog Food for Allergies
As I mentioned earlier, actual food allergies are not as common as some internet gurus would have you believe. But the only way to know for sure is to do a food elimination test with the help of your veterinarian. Dogs with allergic responses to food ingredients usually require a much stricter diet than dogs with environmental allergies.
Here are the foods that are most often chosen to determine if a dog is reacting to food…
|Name of Product||Type of Hypoallergenic Diet/Protein Source||Form of Food||Prescription Required?|
|Hill’s z/d||Hydrolyzed /Chicken Liver||Dry, Canned||Yes|
|Hill’s d/d||Novel Protein/Various Single Protein Sources||Dry, Canned||Yes|
|Royal Canin Selected Protein||Novel Protein/Various Single Protein Sources||Dry, Canned||Yes|
|Royal Canin Hydrolyzed Protein HP||Hydrolyzed/Soy||Dry, Canned||Yes|
|Royal Canin Ultamino||Hydrolyzed/“Poultry By-Products Aggregate”||Dry Only||Yes|
|Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets HA Hydrolyzed Chicken Flavor Canine Formula||Hydrolyzed/Soy, Chicken Liver, Chicken||Dry Only||Yes|
|BLUE Natural Veterinary Diet™HF Hydrolyzed for Food Intolerance||Hydrolyzed/Salmon||Dry/Canned||Yes|
Best Non-Prescription Dog Food for Allergies
There are plenty of dogs with mild to moderate skin problems who don’t actually have food allergies. Considering that environmental allergy is a much more common cause of itchy skin in dogs, it’s a good idea to look into dog food formulated to promote skin health.
Multiple studies have found that dog food supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids decreases itchiness in allergic dogs (8). You could add fish oil to your dog’s food or just buy one that contains extra omega-3 fatty acids.
Here are my top picks for dogs with mild to moderate skin allergy symptoms where food allergy is not suspected or has been ruled out…
|Name of Product||Type of Hypoallergenic Diet/Protein Source||Form of Food||Prescription Required?|
|Purina Pro Plan Adult Sensitive Skin & Stomach||Healthy Skin Ingredients||Dry/Canned||No|
|Eukanuba Adult Medium Breed Dry Dog Food||Healthy Skin Ingredients||Dry/Canned||No|
|Purina ONE SmartBlend Natural Sensitive Systems Salmon||Healthy Skin Ingredients||Dry/Canned||No|
|Canidae PURE Grain Free, Limited Ingredient Dry Dog Food, Salmon and Sweet Potato||Limited and Healthy Skin Ingredients||Dry/Canned||No|
|Hill’s Science Diet Dry Dog Food, Adult, Sensitive Stomach & Skin Recipes||Healthy Skin Ingredients||Dry/Canned||No|
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- Bizikova, P., & Olivry, T. (2016). A randomized, double‐blinded crossover trial testing the benefit of two hydrolysed poultry‐based commercial diets for dogs with spontaneous pruritic chicken allergy. Veterinary dermatology, 27(4), 289-e70.
- Chesney, C. J. (2002). Food sensitivity in the dog: a quantitative study. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 43(5), 203-207.
- Hillier, A., & Griffin, C. E. (2001). The ACVD task force on canine atopic dermatitis (X): is there a relationship between canine atopic dermatitis and cutaneous adverse food reactions?. Veterinary immunology and immunopathology, 81(3-4), 227-231.
- Horvath‐Ungerboeck, C., Widmann, K., & Handl, S. (2017). Detection of DNA from undeclared animal species in commercial elimination diets for dogs using PCR. Veterinary dermatology, 28(4), 373-e86.
- Mueller, R. S., Olivry, T., & Prélaud, P. (2016). Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (2): common food allergen sources in dogs and cats. BMC veterinary research, 12(1), 1-4.
- Olivry, T., Mueller, R. S., & Prélaud, P. (2015). Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (1): duration of elimination diets. BMC veterinary research, 11(1), 1-3.
- Proverbio, D., Perego, R., Spada, E., & Ferro, E. (2010). Prevalence of adverse food reactions in 130 dogs in Italy with dermatological signs: a retrospective study. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 51(7), 370-374.
- Scott, D. W., Miller Jr, W. H., Reinhart, G. A., Mohammed, H. O., & Bagladi, M. S. (1997). Effect of an omega-3/omega-6 fatty acid-containing commercial lamb and rice diet on pruritus in atopic dogs: results of a single-blinded study. Canadian journal of veterinary research, 61(2), 145.
Last update on 2022-01-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API