Allergies in dogs are pretty common, but only about 10% of them are down to food ingredients. The rest are largely due to flea bites and environmental allergens like pollen, dust mites and fungal spores. When working out the cause, try to keep an open mind.
Environmental allergies share a lot of the same symptoms as food allergies, and are much more common. Not only that, but dogs can have both types of allergy at once, which can throw you off the scent if you’re only focused on food. But how do you figure out if your dog has a genuine food allergy and needs a hypoallergenic diet? Well, the first thing to do is look at the symptoms.
Allergies generally cause itchy skin, ear infections, skin infections or hotspots and reddened paws (which dogs will chew or bite). Food intolerances will generally cause digestive upsets like vomiting or diarrhoea, loose stools, gurgling and so on. But the symptoms can overlap. Food allergies and intolerances are more common in certain breeds like Shar Pei, English and French Bulldogs, West Highland White Terriers and English Bull Terriers. But all breeds can suffer.
You can do blood tests to figure out your dog’s allergies, but the results for food allergens can be unreliable. Blood tests for environmental allergens however are really useful and there are several treatment and management options if your dog is positive for any of those. So what if you’ve ruled out environmental allergens and suspect food is to blame?
Luckily, the solution to both food allergies and intolerances can be the same; an elimination diet. This means cutting out the offending ingredients so your dog no longer reacts to them. But many dog owners won’t necessarily know what ingredients their dog’s reactive to, and that’s where a hypoallergenic diet comes in. A hypoallergenic diet cuts out the most common allergy culprits, so your dog is less likely to suffer a reaction. And in dogs, very often it’s the animal protein source rather than plant proteins that cause most reactions. Surprisingly beef and chicken score highly as dog food allergens, but also things like wheat, soya and dairy.
There is no definition of what ingredients go into, or are taken out of, a hypoallergenic diet. Most pet food brands will eliminate the top 5 or top 10 most common food allergens perhaps. At tails.com we eliminate our top 5 but also allow our customers to specify what other ingredients they’d like to exclude from their dog’s diet. We recommend sticking to the new diet for at least 8 weeks to assess the result, as it can take some time for symptoms to resolve and the immune system to settle down after an allergic response.
Beneficial ingredients or supplements are also helpful when used in the diet to help with the symptoms your dog’s been showing. Omega 3 essential fatty acids support healthy immune systems as well as skin and coat. Prebiotics and fibre can also be added to support a sensitive digestive system. These are things we can do at tails.com if you tell us your dog needs this kind of support.
Once you’ve resolved your dog’s food allergy, it’s really vital you take care with what you give them to eat in future. If you’re planning on adding anything new to the diet, make sure it’s just one ingredient at a time. So a mixed ingredient treat is not a good idea, you’ll never know which ingredient was the culprit if your dog has a flare up. Make sure everyone in the family or household is onboard with the new feeding routine (and knows not to give in to those tempting puppy dog eyes!). And be careful your pooch doesn’t get the opportunity to scavenge leftovers or food scraps whilst out and about on walks, all of which could set them back with a return of symptoms.
All in all, a hypoallergenic diet is a great solution for many sensitive pups, whether they’ve got a genuine food allergy or an intolerance.
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Written by: Sean McCormack BSc (Hons), MVB, MRCVS Head Vet