Dog Food Allergies
The expression “eat like a dog” comes from the canines’ reputation for gulping down meals of all sorts in a matter of seconds. Their indiscriminate palate, however, isn’t helping their health, and veterinarians are noticing a rise in the number of dogs with food allergies.
Mimi Drew had her dog Charlie for a little more than a year when he got his first ear infection. She took him to the vet, who sent Charlie home with ointment and a round of antibiotics.
After many trips to the vet over a nine-month period to treat chronic ear infections and itchy skin, Drew began to do some research. She ultimately traced Charlie’s symptoms to a rare canine food allergy: beef. “I was surprised that my vet didn’t even consider food allergies when Charlie had those symptoms,” Drew says.
“We could have spared Charlie a lot of suffering, not to mention the vet bills I could have avoided.”
Her vet was not necessarily to blame. Canine food allergies are not very common and, like human allergies, can be tricky to diagnose as dogs often do not show any immediate symptoms. A dog that’s allergic to a certain ingredient, such as soy, may remain symptom-free for years before experiencing any related problems.
Dog Food Allergies on the Rise
“It certainly seems like we’re seeing more dogs with food allergies, similarly to humans,” says Mona Boord, DVM, co-owner of the Animal Dermatology Clinic in San Diego.
When it comes to food allergies, it helps to know what to look for. According to Alexander Werner, DVM, of the Animal Dermatology Center, the signs are:
- Chronic/recurring ear infections
- Itchy face and paws
- Hair loss, especially around the eyes
These symptoms can almost always be attributed to other issues. However, once you’ve ruled everything else out, consider discussing the possibility of a food allergy with your vet.
What is the Most Common Food Allergy in Dogs?
A host of ingredients go into many commercial dog foods today. Most pets are fine and thrive on those foods, but a small percentage may be allergic to certain ingredients. Figuring out which ingredient is important to treating an allergic condition.
“It is often a protein source, such as chicken or beef, but it can include a carbohydrate, such as wheat, and in very rare cases corn,”says Korrin Saker, DMV, associate professor of clinical nutrition at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Dogs can also be allergic to other ingredients, such as preservatives or additives. “I’ve seen dogs that were allergic to peanut butter and tomatoes,” Dr. Boord says. Peanut butter is sometimes an ingredient in dog biscuits, while tomato paste may be an ingredient in dry foods.
Veterinarians used to prescribe a diet based on lamb and rice for dogs with allergic reactions, but even those ingredients have become more common today and might be the source of an allergen. It’s less likely with rice but more so with lamb, experts say.
What Are the Symptoms Of Dog Food Allergy?
Veterinarians caution that there are two types of issues your dog may have with food.
The most common problem is food intolerance, or food sensitivity, which means your dog isn’t digesting a particular type of food well. Food intolerance is a non-immunologic response that can trigger such symptoms as gassiness, vomiting, diarrhea and borborygmus (also known as stomach growling) according to Dr Saker.
More immediate reactions from a dog’s immune system to an offending food are called food allergies. Symptoms may include intestinal distress but typically will also involve itching around the muzzle, ears, paws and sometimes around the anus. The reason itchiness occurs in these places is probably because canines have more mast cells (which contain histamines and play a key role in the inflammatory process) in these locations.
How Do I Know If My Dog Has a Food Allergy?
The simplest way to determine if your dog has a food allergy is to put your pup on a hypoallergenic food-elimination diet. Kimberly Carvalho, DVM, says you should “pick a novel protein source that your dog has never had before and feed it for six-to-eight weeks.” For example, a commercial lamb and rice formula works well if your dog did not previously eat this combination much before.
Carvalho advises that your dog must not have access to any other food, such as table scraps, bones or treats during the trial period. She also recommends transitioning your dog gradually by mixing small amounts of the new flavored food in with your dog’s old standby until you are feeding exclusively the new food.
At the end of the trial period, provided your dog’s symptoms are gone, try feeding your dog its original diet. If a food allergy is to blame, symptoms will return within two weeks. If this does happen, go back to the food that you used during the trial. If your dog’s symptoms still have not cleared up, and you have ruled out other causes, keep trying different flavors until your dog’s symptoms disappear. Usually you can stick with your favorite pet food brand throughout the process. If your dog previously ate beef and veggies, try chicken and rice, or vice versa, depending on your dog’s prior diet.
Dr. Carvalho also points out that once you’ve successfully concluded the trial and gotten your dog’s allergies under control, it is important to reintroduce treats one at a time, waiting six to eight weeks each time you introduce a new treat flavor, to make sure it does not lead to an allergic reaction again.
How Do You Treat Food Allergies in Dogs?
There are several treatment options for dogs taken to a veterinarian with symptoms of a food allergy:
Rule Out Other Ailments
The first cause of attack is to make sure that the problems aren’t being caused by something else. An intestinal parasite, for example, can cause similar symptoms. Dogs may also scratch themselves so much that they develop secondary infections. Itchiness can additionally develop as a result of allergies to environmental factors, including mold spores, pollens and cleaners, says Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, Professor of Clinical Nutrition at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Once other ailments are ruled out, veterinarians will ask you to chronicle your dog’s food history. Since common proteins like chicken and beef are frequent sources of food allergies, veterinarians will often advise that you look for foods with a “novel protein source”, something they don’t normally eat.
An assortment of commercial foods is now made for dogs with food allergies. Veterinarians advise that you look for foods with one source of protein and one source of carbohydrates, both of which should be “novel” for your pet. Kangaroo meat is one such “novel” protein, while potatoes or oats are examples of “novel” carbohydrates. In addition, a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and itching.
Lastly, there is a series of medicines that can help your dog deal with food allergies. Dogs can be given allergy shots to help build up tolerance to a food, Dr. Wakshlag says. In addition, small doses of steroids can be used to make the itchiness more tolerable for your dog. There are also immunosuppressive therapies, such as Cyclosporine, that can help in treatment.
While food allergies can be frustrating for pet owners, and no doubt, even more frustrating for dogs, they are solvable. So continue with the suggested feeding techniques until you find a food combination that agrees with your dog.
If your dog shows signs of food allergies, don’t delay. The best recipe for success in treating your pet is to take it to your veterinarian to find the cause of the distress. With quality commercial foods now available that specifically address such problems, your dog will likely be eating its way back to good health in no time.