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How to Recognize and Manage Food Allergies in Dogs

Scratchy skin and sad stomachs getting your pup down? Sniffing out food fixes can bring back the tail wags.

By DailyTails
Janet Barben Bio
Edited by Janet Barben

Published February 5, 2024.

a brown and white dog rolling around in the grass

Itchy skin, chronic ear infections, vomiting, diarrhea - as a dog owner, you've likely dealt with these frustrating symptoms in your beloved pet. Trips to the vet don't always provide answers. The culprit may be right in front of you - your dog's food. This article offers guidance on recognizing and managing food allergies in dogs, a common but overlooked cause of chronic health issues.

What are Food Allergies, and How Do They Differ from Intolerances?

A food allergy is different from a food intolerance. With a food intolerance, your dog reacts badly to something in the food, like lactose or an ingredient that disagrees with them. A food allergy means your dog's immune system sees something in the food as dangerous and overreacts, causing ongoing symptoms.

The main signs of a food allergy are constant itching and scratching (vets call this pruritus). Your dog might also have digestive issues like vomiting or diarrhea. But itchy skin is the most common problem. Food allergies can develop at any age but often start when a dog is young.

The Impact of Food Allergies on a Dog's Wellbeing

Food allergies can really impact your dog's comfort and happiness. You may notice your dog licking or chewing their paws, scratching a lot, rolling around, or other signs of irritation. If the allergies affect their stomach, they may have more gas, loose stools, or diarrhea.

These symptoms are unpleasant for your dog and frustrating for you. No one wants to see their furry friend uncomfortable or in distress. The tricky thing is it can be hard to pinpoint that food is the culprit behind these issues. The symptoms come and go, so it may take some detective work to connect the dots.

The good news is you can take steps, like changing your dog's diet, to provide relief once you identify a food allergy. Working with your vet to understand what's causing your dog distress is key to getting them back to their happy, energetic selves. Taking some time to monitor their symptoms and food can set your dog up for better health.

a dog is sitting at a table with a plate of food

Common Food Allergens in Dog Foods

When it comes to dog food allergies, the ingredients most likely to cause issues are proteins, not grains. Contrary to some advertising claims, relatively few dogs are allergic to wheat or other grains.

The top three allergens are typically dairy, chicken, and beef. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to find commercial dog foods without chicken or dairy products. Even if the main protein is something unusual like venison, many brands sneak in common allergens like chicken fat or powdered milk.

This makes it tricky to pick a "hypoallergenic" food off the shelf that will work for your dog. You have to scrutinize the ingredients list, which isn't always completely transparent about containing common allergens.

The good news is there are specialty foods made with uncommon proteins, like duck, kangaroo, or mackerel, with simpler formulas. Working with your vet to experiment with single protein, limited ingredient diets can help identify issues. It takes some trial and error, but you can get to the bottom of food allergies to get your dog feeling their best.

Recognizing Symptoms of Food Allergies

Dogs' most common signs of food allergies involve skin irritation and ear infections. You may notice your dog:

  • Licking or chewing their paws

  • Scratching their belly, chest, groin area, or face

  • Having recurrent infections in these areas

These symptoms can look similar to other common issues like flea or seasonal environmental allergies. So, it can be tricky to pinpoint food as the actual culprit behind your dog’s discomfort.

a dog sitting on a leash looking up at a person

What’s more, the root causes of food allergies in dogs aren’t fully understood. Experts believe genetics, environment, gut health, and other factors likely all contribute. We also don’t know the true prevalence - by many accounts, food allergies tend to be overestimated and over-diagnosed.

But we do know a few things that can help in getting to the bottom of skin and gut issues:

  1. A detailed log of your dog’s symptoms and corresponding foods can uncover connections over time. Looking for consistencies in when and how issues flare up guides the next steps.
  2. Coordinating with your vet to try elimination or limited ingredient diets methodically eliminates variables. Staying vigilant to changes after dietary tweaks helps determine if you’re on the right track.

While tricky to pinpoint, food allergies can be managed once identified. Sorting through skin irritations takes some puzzle-solving between you and your vet. Maintaining detailed records and trying dietary changes systematically are key to connecting the dots.

Distinguishing Food Allergy Symptoms from Other Conditions

The key to identifying a food allergy is to do a diet trial. A diet trial means feeding your dog a strict hypoallergenic diet for 6-8 weeks. This special food uses hydrolyzed protein that is broken down so small your dog's immune system won't react to it. During the trial, you must avoid giving other foods, treats, or supplements, as even a tiny amount could affect results.

After 5 weeks on the hydrolyzed food, you should notice an improvement in about 85% of dogs with food allergies. By 8 weeks, 95% of dogs show improvement. Once you finish the trial, you can give your dog their original food again. If symptoms return, it confirms your dog has a food allergy triggering those issues.

Doing an elimination diet properly takes work, but it's the best way to determine if food is causing problems for your dog. Partner with your vet on the right approach—it can be pricey, but with coverage from Lemonade Pet Insurance, your wallet won't feel the pain. Identifying allergies now helps create a healthy lifelong diet plan for your pup. With some adjustments, most dogs can live comfortably even with food sensitivities.

Finding the Right Food

When looking for allergy triggers, scrutinize all food and medicine flavors for hidden proteins like "beef" or "chicken" that could cause issues. Vets recommend prescription hydrolyzed diets for reliable results from a food trial. Though pricier, the specialized processing avoids cross-contamination, so you can pinpoint exactly what ingredients your dog can't tolerate.

Closely examine labels and watch for stealth proteins in everything you give your dog. This helps determine the problematic food ingredient so you can provide lasting allergy relief.

Some dogs get picky or only like certain textures, so finding the right diet can take patience. Keep partnering with your vet to find balanced options, whether prescription food, or homemade plans from a vet nutritionist. This becomes especially important for puppies and seniors with higher allergy rates and changing nutritional needs over time. When choosing a dog food, ensure it fits your dog’s life stage with proper formulations now available for all ages.

While determining and managing canine food allergies feels overwhelming initially, your vet is there to help every step of the way. Together, you can identify problem ingredients and discover a tasty diet that maintains your dog’s health and happiness long-term. Consistency around what you feed and vigilance for symptoms pays off in greatly reduced allergies.

The Role of Supplements and Medications

While an elimination diet is key, certain supplements may also help provide relief, especially for skin-related symptoms. Remember to check the ingredients for potential allergens before giving them to your pooch.

  • Fatty Acid Supplements: Fish oil and evening primrose oil can strengthen skin barrier function and reduce inflammation. They may allow reducing anti-inflammatory medications over time.
  • Digestive Enzymes or Probiotics: These promote better digestion and nutrient absorption. They also help balance gut flora, which influences immune responses. They may ease GI upset when transitioning diets.
  • Soothing Topicals: Anti-itch creams, aloe vera gels, and other topicals provide temporary relief for hot spots and frequently licked/chewed areas. Using them lets the skin heal while new diets take effect.
  • Steroids or Antihistamines: These may be prescribed short-term for severe itching or infections. But they likely won't address the underlying food allergy without dietary change long-term.

Discuss all supplements and medications with your vet before introducing them. The goal is to provide multi-faceted relief while also identifying allergy triggers through the diet. Maintaining a detailed diary of what you give your dog, along with symptom changes, helps inform ongoing care.

This Is Your Captain Woofing - Get Pet Insurance!

As you work to uncover food allergies causing your dog distress, having a financial safety net provides peace of mind. The costs of specialty foods and medications can add up quickly. While no one expects health issues, pet insurance helps take a bite out of unexpected vet bills down the road.

Rather than feel overwhelmed, look into custom coverage backed by leading providers, available through trusted pet insurance broker DailyTails. You can compare comprehensive plans through them to find the right fit for your budget. This allows you to focus on getting your dog feeling their best again soon.