Understanding Canine Food Allergies

Is your dog constantly licking, itching and scratching? Do they have frequent ear infections or poor skin and coat? It’s possible the food you are feeding them could be contributing to their distress. Food allergies are a rising concern with dog owners and it seems like more and more dogs are suffering from them.

Not all allergies are food related. Some are environmental or contact allergies caused by grasses and weeds, airborne allergies from dust and smoke, and others may be related to cleaning products, shampoos or flea control products. And whilst we shouldn’t assume that every allergy is related to food, if your dog is showing some of the symptoms listed above, or is experiencing respiratory issues like difficulty breathing, or gastrointestinal upset such as diarrhoea or vomiting, it’s important to investigate whether food may be the culprit.

But what precisely is a food allergy?

A food allergy is different from a food sensitivity or intolerance. Food intolerance is the result of poor digestion, such as a lactose intolerance. Dogs generally do not have high levels of lactase, the milk digesting enzyme, and some may be missing it altogether. The same goes for people, which is why there are a number of low-lactose dairy products on supermarket shelves. An intolerance is different to an allergy.

Food allergies are the over-response of the dog’s immune system to an “invading” protein contained in your dog’s diet. And as you can imagine, proteins are present in most of the foods your dog eats; not just meat, but also most grains and some vegetables. Any one of these proteins has the potential to cause a food allergy.

Your dog’s gastrointestinal system (mouth, stomach, intestines) protects them from potential allergic triggers every day. And as much as 70% of a dog’s immune system is located in their gastrointestinal tract.

There are several stages of the digestive process that proteins must go through before being broken down into tiny particles called amino acids which can be absorbed into the body. If any part of this complex process breaks down — resulting in a whole protein being absorbed in the intestines — the immune system reacts and your dog shows symptoms of a food allergy. Unfortunately, every time the offending protein is consumed by the dog, the over-response of the immune response becomes greater. So continuing to consume the diet that caused the allergic response results in a greater and greater response every time. After a hypersensitivity is formed, over time it may manifest as diarrhoea, itchy skin, chronic skin infections etc. It is also important to note that food allergies can develop at any age or life stage, with foods that were previously eaten without issues.

Dog in basket

Isolating the Problem

The first thing you need to do is work with your Vet or Small Animal Practioner (such as a qualified Canine Nutritionist or Naturopath) to make sure that your dog’s symptoms truly indicate a food allergy. If that’s the case, they will likely recommend that you try an elimination diet — feeding a food that has a different protein (meat) source and a different carbohydrate (vegetable) source than what your dog has had before. Common anti-allergy foods (novel protein sources) include kangaroo and sweet potato or pork and pumpkin. This stops the immune response from continuing to be triggered.

While your dog is on any special diet, it’s very important that they don’t get any other treats or snacks such as cookies, chews or table scraps that could trigger the allergic reaction. Once you’ve found a diet that they’re not reacting to you can start to reintroduce other foods. If your dog reacts, you’ll know exactly which food (or foods) is causing the problem and avoid it in the future.

Managing Food Allergies

Here is a list things you can do that may help your dog fight off numerous allergies:

Promote a healthy gut

This can be done by ensuring that our dogs — and especially puppies — have adequate nutrition and health care and are fed a human-grade, natural diet from the start. Avoid preservatives, fillers and synthetic additives such as flavourings which can damage the lining of the gut. The best way to do this is to check the ingredient labels on your pet food. Here’s some extra information on interpreting pet food labels.

Go grain free

Every dog can benefit from a switch to a grain-free diet, but especially those with allergies, intolerances or sensitivities. Around a quarter will stop itching entirely after eliminating grains and reducing starches. Ear infections and yeasty ears are also reduced using this method (read our article Grain Drain). Dogs fed a grain-free diet from the beginning are less likely to suffer from allergies in the first place.    

Choose a dog food with single protein sources

A food that only has one or two protein sources such as “Chicken Meat and Chicken Organs” or “Kangaroo Meat and Lamb Organs” can be helpful in giving you more choices later on should your dog develop an allergy. For example, if you use a food with multiple protein sources (i.e. dehydrated beef and pork protein, dehydrated poultry meat, animal fats, hydrolysed animal proteins*) and your dog develops an allergy to it, you now have to find a food that doesn’t contain any of these protein sources. This is impossible. Conversely, if you feed a food with chicken as its single protein source and your dog develops an allergy to it, you can easily find a diet that doesn’t contain chicken.

Supplement

Making sure your dog receives all the essential nutrients for skin and coat health is vital. We recommend the use of a high quality Omega 3, 6 & 9 oil containing essential fatty acids — preferably derived from fish rather than plant sources — combined with a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement and Vitamin C which acts as a natural anti-histamine and immunity builder. We love the Natural Animal Solutions Skin Pack. Probiotics are also an important supplement for dogs suffering from allergy symptoms.

Improve protein digestion

In general, your dog should have no problem digesting protein. The higher quality the protein the better, which is why we use, and recommend the use of human grade muscle and organ meats rather than meat meals and other meat by-products. If you are feeding a homemade cooked or raw diet, breaking the food down in a food processor can be helpful in improving protein digestion. However many Raw feeders will argue strongly that all dogs have the digestive equipment to consume whole prey and large chunks of meat, so breaking it down in a food processor is unnecessary.

Don’t Give Up

Owning a dog with food allergies can be challenging and frustrating. Proper diagnosis and management of food allergies can make a real difference and understanding why food allergies occur can help us prevent allergies from starting. On a personal note, my Irish Wolfhound has had food allergies for 2.5 years. It has been a difficult journey, and he is the reason we started to manufacture high quality pet food that caters for allergies with novel and single protein sources that are free of grains. If you have a dog with allergies, don’t give up on him, it will get better.

Dog allergies

*Ingredients taken from Royal Canin “Labrador Retriever”. Full Ingredient Listing: Rice, maize, dehydrated beef and pork protein, dehydrated poultry meat, maize gluten, animal fats, hydrolysed animal proteins, vegetable fibres, minerals, beet pulp, yeasts, fish oil, soya oil, psyllium husks and seeds, fructo-oligo-saccharides, hydrolys.

Alla Keogh

Fuelled by a love for great food and a keen desire to offer pets and their parents the very best choices when it comes to their diet and health, Small Animal Nutritionist Alla is passionate about educating pet owners about natural, species-appropriate feeding.