Food Allergies in Dogs

Symptoms, Detection, and Treatment

Your dog is itching like crazy and shaking his head constantly. He’s biting at his feet and his toes, causing sores and hair loss. The scratches on his neck and ears are becoming infected, he’s obsessively rubbing his nose, and the skin on his tail and bottom is becoming rough and flaky. Your vet just told you it could be a food allergy. What does that mean?...and how can you help your beloved pooch so that he becomes more comfortable and stops hurting himself?

Ten percent of all allergy cases in common household pets are food allergies. Animals with food allergies can suffer with anything from chronic ear inflammation, gastrointestinal problems, and chronic diarrhea to chronic gas, licking their feet, or an itchy rear end.

Veterinarians consider most food allergies a genetic problem inherited by your dog from his parents, and, when these reactions are triggered, it’s by exposure to whatever substance the animal is predetermined to react to. The most common allergens affecting sensitive pets are beef, dairy, wheat products, corn products, egg, chicken, lamb, soy, pork, rabbit, and fish. And, unfortunately, most animals are usually allergic to more than one component in their food.

The cause of an allergic reaction to a food substance typically has many factors, including a genetic predisposition to developing allergies and environmental elements that can trigger a flare-up. There is a lot of research going on right now to determine what, in early puppyhood, makes the immune system more likely to react against certain allergens.

Newborn puppies have an immune education process happening in the first few weeks of life. The mother’s colostrum (first, early milk) contains antibodies that allow their youngsters’ immune systems to ward off disease and remain healthy. Young pups treated early on with antibiotics could potentially be predisposed to problems as they age because these antibiotics change the environmental bacteria inside the gut, negating the protective properties of the mother’s colostrum, and leaving the babies open to ongoing health problems including reactions related to food products.

There is debate among veterinarians whether some breeds are more prone to food allergies than others. Some vets believe that food allergies can vary by country or part of the country. The problem may be as simple as which breeders, with their line-bred family of animals, are in your area. So if you have a very prominent breeder who is breeding a line known for their allergies, you’re going to think that breed commonly has food allergies.

Rescue animals, with their litany of diseases caused by malnutrition and neglect, are also highly subject to being affected by food allergies. Although just about any animal can be food allergic, most veterinarians recognize that Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Dachshunds, and Cocker Spaniels are the breeds most commonly affected with this malady.

Figuring out if your pet is food allergic can be a challenge for both you, the pet parent, and for your veterinarian. There is only one way to diagnose food allergies accurately, and that is with an elimination diet and testing. Typically, your vet will recommend that you take your dog off all the foods he eats normally, and put him on a food that he's never had before.

Normally, your pooch will be given a protein he’s never before eaten. These proteins can include such exotic fare as salmon, duck, kangaroo, and alligator. Once his symptoms have improved, you can start reintroducing the old foods that may be causing the problems in the first place. If he has a reaction, which usually takes a few days to a few weeks, then you know he has a food allergy to that familiar protein…not the new, exotic one just introduced to his diet.

There is specific testing to rule out other problems as well. For instance, you might take a sample of discharge from the ears to see if your dog has an ear infection or is atopic – meaning he is allergic to some airborne, environmental substance. Blood testing is not an accurate test for any allergy, either airborne or food related.

If an elimination diet improves your pup’s clinical signs and you are able to find two to three diets he can tolerate, many vets will recommend rotating through the various diets every two to three months. The whole point is to keep your dog stable for a period of at least 6 months so you can eventually do additional testing to identify what he is really allergic to. The good news is that if you’re noticing the symptoms of food allergies in a very young animal, the allergies do sometimes resolve themselves.

The only way to really treat a dog with food allergies is to eliminate that particular product from the diet forever. Many pet parents choose to make a cooked and/or raw diet for their pet at home because it allows them to know exactly what their allergic animal is eating at all times. Others look for specific anti-allergenic commercial foods to feed their dogs. For those pet owners, learning what nutrients and supplements their dog needs to stay healthy can be an experience in healthy living for the whole family.