Is your dog suffering from itchy hot spots, or is he constantly licking and scratching in certain spots? The struggle is real for both pets and pet parents, as we try to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
The good news is, the issue might be something less stressful than you think! These symptoms are some of the most common signs of food allergies in dogs.
In this day and age, allergies are a super common occurrence for pets. And we understand how difficult it is to watch your beloved pets suffer through uncomfortable, and often painful, conditions.
While the symptoms can be treated with some success, it’s important to know that using medications, grooming supplies, and supplements are often just a temporary band-aid instead of a complete solution.
The underlying causes of these skin reactions often go unresolved for far too long.
The first step is understanding what exactly is causing dog food allergies and being able to identify the symptoms, so you can help minimize, and in some cases, eliminate your dog’s discomfort.
What Causes Allergic Reactions in Dogs?
An allergic reaction is actually your pet’s body using its natural defense mechanisms and protecting itself from potential threats. In this case, those aggravating threats are called allergens! An allergen can be anything from food, pollen, grass, insects, or even chemicals.
To protect itself from the foreign substances that have entered the bloodstream, either through ingestion or inhalation, your dog's body will produce an antibody, called Immunoglobulin E (IgE for short) that is specific to that allergen or whatever substance it flagged as a threat.
When an IgE and its matching allergen react with carrier cells, called mast cells, the cell will begin to break down, releasing the chemical compound stored within the cell. This chemical compound contains Histamine and a type of Omega 6 fatty acid called Arachidonic Acid, both known to increase inflammation.
This inflammation is what causes the visible reaction and itchiness in your pet.
Though allergens can be environmental, meaning seasonal pollens, dust mites, or chemicals, we are going to be focusing on dog food allergies specifically in this post. Sensitivities and intolerances to dog food are becoming much more common, and while managing symptoms can help, identifying the cause can lead to a more permanent solution for your pet.
How Do Dogs Develop Food Allergies?
While the true cause of allergies is still unknown, there has been speculation that when a pet is over-sensitized to a food, it can lead to allergies developing later in life. For example, if your dog has only ever eaten chicken-based foods, then they are more likely to develop a chicken allergy.
Offering a wider variety of foods on a rotational basis can potentially help to prevent over-sensitization to specific proteins. In addition to possibly reducing future food allergies in your dog, you will also be supplying them with a wider variety of essential nutrients from different ingredients.
Digestion and the Link to Dog Food Allergies
We use the term allergy, but in reality, true dog food allergies are much less common than most people think, only about 20% of allergies are true dog food allergies. In many cases, the skin reactions that we attribute to dog food allergies stem from a digestive issue or intolerance.
If you’ve ever tried to correct or identify a food allergy in your pet (or even yourself), then the first attempt to find the nasty allergen is changing their diet. The assumption is often - I eliminated X from the diet, and my dog improved, therefore, he must be allergic to X!
While this seems logical on the surface, it may only be one piece of the puzzle.
True food allergies can’t be fixed, just eliminated from the diet. If further symptoms begin to develop, or if symptoms return, then it’s time to consider that your dog’s digestion might be the cause of his ailments.
Your dog’s first line of defense against food sensitivities is the digestive tract. In fact, 70% of your dog’s immune system is located in the digestive tract, which means that digestion is directly tied to their immune response.
If the digestive system isn’t filtering out inappropriate or potentially harmful material, then pathogens, partially digested nutrients, and toxins can enter the bloodstream.
When this happens, the immune system kicks into high gear and works to isolate the intruder by creating antibodies and releasing inflammatory compounds to attack the threat.
Leaky Gut Syndrome in Dogs
When poorly or partially digested foods pass through the intestinal wall, this could signify a case of leaky gut syndrome. If you’re thinking to yourself “well, that sounds nasty”, you’re right... and it is as uncomfortable for your pet as it sounds!
Leaky gut causes inflammation of the mucosal wall of the intestine, which is the permeable layer of epithelial cells that separate the intestines from the bloodstream.
This thin wall is a single layer of cells that allow fully digested nutrients, like vitamins, amino acids, and minerals, to pass through and enter the bloodstream. At the same time, it blocks larger particles, like undigested food, bacteria, and pathogens from entering your dog’s bloodstream. Instead, these particles are filtered through the liver and excreted.
Chronic inflammation of the intestinal wall will cause widening between the epithelial cells, allowing larger particles to pass through. Because these molecules aren’t supposed to be there, the immune system raises the alarm and attacks, causing widespread inflammation throughout the body.
Leaky gut is often mistaken for food allergies, especially in more severe cases and in cases where the dog seems to react to all, or at least a large variety of foods.
Healing digestion will fortify the intestinal wall and prevent chronic allergy symptoms and skin reactions in dogs.
Poor Quality Diet and Dog Food Allergies
You may think that leaky gut syndrome fits your dog’s symptoms, but don’t jump to that conclusion just yet! Poor quality diets, especially those that are heavily processed or filled with poor quality ingredients, can contribute to allergy symptoms as well. These causes are much easier to correct.
In some cases, the intestinal wall isn’t malfunctioning, it’s the nutrients themselves that are the problem. Food that uses high heat, relies too heavily on synthetic nutrients and uses ingredients that are heavily processed can denature the molecules making it difficult for their body to recognize.
The nutrients are there and they are broken down small enough to pass through the intestinal wall, but they are so heavily processed that the body doesn’t recognize them. Anything the body doesn’t recognize is an intruder, and the immune system takes immediate action.
Fresh foods, raw diets, even kibbles that are cooked at lower temperatures like oven-baked or dehydrated options are going to offer more usable nutrients that are easier for your dog’s body to recognize and use appropriately.
While gluten is thought to be a common allergen, many pets showing signs of allergic reactions from gluten are more likely having a digestive reaction. Gluten intolerances, like in people can be either an allergy or an intolerance.
Gluten intolerance causes inflammation in the lower intestine. This inflammation affects the lower intestine's ability to digest food properly, resulting in loose stool, poor absorption of nutrients, and immune responses like skin and coat issues.
What are Symptoms of Food Allergies in Dogs?
Dog food allergies are something many pet owners deal with, and in many cases, the symptoms are pretty obvious! However in some cases, subtler symptoms can go unnoticed for a long time until they get bad enough to catch our attention.
Your dog’s constant scratching and licking to try to soothe the itchiness will only make matters worse. Being able to identify symptoms of dog food allergies can help you take action quickly and prevent the symptoms from getting worse, spreading, or causing your dog to hurt themselves further in their efforts to stop the itch.
Here are some of the symptoms that are commonly associated with dog food allergies:
- Redness of the skin
- Hot spots
- Dry flaky skin
The truth is you may not even notice the symptoms so much as you’ll notice your dog’s reactions. Many dogs will scratch and lick themselves raw to the point of even further skin damage. In this situation, you are now dealing with the initial symptoms, plus the symptoms caused by your dog’s licking and scratching.
Prevention is always the best medicine, but not all symptoms of dog food allergies are initially recognized as an allergic reaction. There are lots of different types of reactions that you can be treating without realizing the connection to his diet.
Here are a few symptoms that are often misdiagnosed as one-off or unrelated issues:
- Acne or pimples
- Chronic skin or ear infections
- Yeast infections
- Runny eyes and sneezing
Because these are some of the more atypical symptoms, they are usually treated as a separate issue instead of treating the underlying cause.
In some cases, along with skin and coat issues, you might see digestive reactions, like loose or inconsistent stool. This is a good indicator that the problem is digestive rather than a true food allergy.
What are Common Foods that Cause Allergies in Dogs?
Before we list common foods that cause allergies in pets, let’s preface this with what we’ve learned so far: Not all food allergies are actually true food allergies.
With this in mind, however, we do have some usual suspects that are commonly eliminated from the diet to help test out diet changes and narrow down possible triggers.
Chicken Allergies in Dogs
The most commonly suspected food allergy in dogs is chicken. Chicken allergies in dogs are so common that some pet owners avoid chicken-based diets, even for dogs without allergies. This may seem odd, but because we don't truly know what causes food allergies, avoiding chicken may seem like a reasonable preventative measure, especially for breeds that are more prone to allergies.
As we noted earlier, it’s possible that over-sensitization to certain common dog food ingredients can lead to the development of allergies. Chicken is the most common protein used in pet food, so it's not surprising that chicken allergies are at the top of the list.
Other commonly used ingredients in pet food are also high up on our list of possible allergens or triggers for dog food allergies. Here are a few more overused ingredients:
Though these are considered the most common culprits, your dog can develop allergies or sensitivities to any food ingredients. So don’t get discouraged if your first attempt to change foods or eliminate ingredients is unsuccessful.
Eliminating common allergens may work for some dogs, but when dealing with allergies or sensitivities stemming from digestive issues, you may need to consider a more limited ingredient diet.
Here are some things that may help narrow down and manage your dog's food allergies:
The simplest method for determining what your dog is allergic to is to use a process of elimination, called an elimination diet. Elimination diets require you to feed a diet that is limited to a single protein source, and preferably minimal other ingredients to test which ingredients your dog is and isn’t reacting to.
As stated earlier, there are many common food allergies like beef and chicken that are widely used in popular dog food brands. Start by avoiding some of the most likely culprits, and monitor your pet’s reactions.
It is recommended that a single, novel protein or a limited ingredient diet be fed during the food trial to help you limit the variety of ingredients in your pet’s diet.
Try choosing a protein that is new to your dog, like fish, kangaroo, venison or duck. Exotic proteins aren't always easy to find, but there are a few brands that offer some unique proteins, like Zignature, GO!, or Petkind. Both offer a variety of single and multi-protein diets to help you weed out some possible problem ingredients.
For allergic reactions relating to digestion, we recommend feeding a lower-carb diet. Some carbs are healthy and nutritious, but even high-quality grains fed in excess can provide too much sugar and feed bad bacteria in your dog’s gut.
Healthy, whole grains are an excellent source of many vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, but dogs are scavenging carnivores, so they thrive on a meat-rich diet. Check out your dog food ingredients to make sure that the diet offers multiple high-quality meat sources and is not packed with excessive carbs.
Not all limited ingredient diets are ideal for elimination diets. Some rely even more on carbs because they limit the variety of animal proteins in the food to just a single source. Make sure you know how to read pet food labels to find a suitable diet for your trial and error process.
Watch your Treats
Eliminate all other food sources from your pet’s diet during this food trial. Treats, chews, and table scraps can all affect the results, so be very diligent. If treats are a necessity, then try to stick to ingredients that are in their diet already.
Freeze-dried meats, fresh fruits and veggies, bone broth, or raw bones should match the ingredients in their food. Don’t introduce new ingredients until you are well into the trial diet and have seen significant improvement in symptoms. Even then, introduce new ingredients one at a time.
Hypo-Allergenic Dog Food
When it comes to finding the best dog food for allergies, you’ll more than likely come across the term “hypo-allergenic” pet food.
Hypo-allergenic is a pet industry buzzword, meaning the product is less likely to trigger an allergic response. There are no regulations regarding the use of the term hypoallergenic for pet food, so it’s best to consider it with skepticism.
Unfortunately, any company that limits or omits a couple of common allergens from their formulas can slap the hypo-allergenic label on their food. Don’t be tricked by this clever marketing ploy, there is no such thing as hypoallergenic food.
Any dog can react to any food if they’ve developed a sensitivity to an ingredient in it.
That being said, you still may find a “hypoallergenic food” useful in an elimination diet for your pet, just don’t consider it the cure-all for food sensitivities.
Instead of looking for foods labelled "hypoallergenic", look for foods that say Limited Ingredient, or LID. Nature's Variety, Honest Kitchen, or Go! Solutions are just a few of the brands that offer these types of formulas.
Not every diet will use that terminology, but a quick read-through of the ingredients will display limited, real food ingredients that will help your pet thrive. Grandma Lucy's and Sojos are few examples of some natural and limited ingredient foods that would be a great choice for an elimination diet.
Raw diets are another type of limited ingredient food and are often a great choice for pets with sensitivities. They are both easy to digest and all-natural, so your dog’s body is likely to recognize and process the ingredients better.
Preservatives and fillers in many cooked foods can contribute to reactions, but raw diets will be free of these less desirable ingredients.
Check out our Dog Food Guide for more tips to find the right type of diet for your dog.
How to Manage and Treat Symptoms of Dog Food Allergies
While we don’t recommend trying to find band-aid solutions for your dog’s allergy issues, we also know that sometimes you need to find temporary relief of symptoms to allow your dog to start healing. No pet parent can stand watching their poor doggo suffer!
There are several dietary aids and topical treatments that can effectively provide some relief to the constant and aggravating itch your dog is struggling with.
The allergic reactions are often a pain, but the damage dogs can do to themselves while trying to ease their discomfort can exacerbate the issues, making it even more difficult to find solutions. In some cases, the residual damage done from the biting, licking, and scratching can go on well after the original cause of the reaction has been eliminated.
Topical treatments can help to soothe the itch, rehydrate skin, disinfect open wounds, and speed healing. Here are some products that can be effective for managing symptoms of dog food allergies:
While topical treatments may seem to have the quickest effect on allergy symptoms, the results are often very temporary. Treating symptoms with supplements can provide longer relief and further support the healing process.
Though there are many skin and coat care supplements, we chose a few easy to feed supplements that are the most effective treatments for managing allergy symptoms:
Fish oils for dogs are one of the best ways to help your dog’s body reduce inflammation and heal. Pet-Tek Wild Salmon Oil is a healthy blend of vital omega fatty acids to support skin and coat and overall health.
Kelp is nature’s multivitamin. Thrive Sea Kelp is an organic sea kelp that provides over 60 essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to help support your dog’s skin and coat health.
This product works for any kind of allergies. Using natural antihistamines like quercetin, and digestive enzymes to support a healthy immune system, Biologicvet Skin and Coat helps to reduce allergic reactions to alleviate discomfort and allow your dog’s body to heal.
Tips for Managing Dog Food Allergies
At the end of the day, every case of dog food allergies is different, so something that works for one dog, might not be effective for another.
And as we mentioned above, blanket fixes, like hypoallergenic diets and medicated shampoos, make lots of promises but rarely deliver!
It is always best to consult with your veterinarian if problems continue, but here are some general tips to help you find the solution that works for your unique pet!
Assess their dietAssess your pet's diet to determine if there is something in his food that he may be reacting to. If you've read our blog about Understanding your Pet Food Labels, you may already have some insight on ingredients that can be damaging or more likely to cause digestive upsets.
One step at a timeDon't try too many “fixes” at once. Changing diet, using special shampoos, adding dietary supplements, and trying prescription drugs all at the same time may give you the results you are looking for, but you will have no way of knowing which remedy may have been helping and if your solution was just a temporary fix.
Try an elimination dietEliminating excessive ingredients from your dog's diet can help you narrow down which ingredients might be the source of the reactions. The more ingredients in the food, the harder it will be to determine what they may or may not be reacting to. Start with a single protein diet, and limit other ingredients to avoid ingredients that are commonly overused in pet food.
Every Protein is DifferentTreat every protein differently. We often associate like proteins together, like chicken and turkey, but this often isn't the case. A dog that has a true food allergy or sensitivity to chicken doesn't necessarily have the same issues with turkey or other poultry products.
The same goes for beef and bison, and fish and shellfish. It may seem easy to just rule out all poultry or all fish, but you may end up limiting the foods that your dog can eat by eliminating such a wide range of protein options for the diet.
Stick to it
Avoid jumping hastily between foods if you aren't getting an immediate result. Patience is required in this, often lengthy, trial and error method. Try to give each food at least 4-6 weeks before trying something new. Quickly switching foods can cause digestive upsets that may contribute to the skin reaction worsening during your trials.
We like to give ourselves a "cheat" day in our own diets, but when it comes to dog food allergies, there is no cheating allowed. Cut out treats, snacks, and be cautious of things your dog may find on walks or in the backyard. Once you find a diet that your dog can have, then you can start reintroducing treats of the same ingredients.
Monitor and document changesMonitor your pet's progress. We recommend taking pictures or keeping a small journal so that you can record changes to skin condition during your trials.
Consult your vetConsult with your vet if symptoms continue to worsen. Infections can develop, especially in heavy licked or scratched areas. If you think that your dog may be at risk of developing an infection, you may need antibiotics to eliminate the infection.
Slow and Steady
The toughest thing about correcting allergies or sensitivities is that it takes time. It could take several weeks and even months to determine intolerances and allergies and even longer to completely reduce the symptoms.
It's important to stay consistent and to not try to rush the process. Little mistakes could require that you start fresh from the beginning, so take your time and give each step a chance to work before changing directions.
What's making your dog itch? Share your dog food allergy struggles, successes, and tips in the comments below!