Hypoallergenic Dog Food
Check out our Dog Food Chart for a list of hypoallergenic dog food and other allergy relieving diets.
Like humans, many dogs suffer from food allergies. While these allergies are certainly more prevalent in some breeds than in others (specifically, poodles, cocker spaniels, boxers, and German shepherds), it can occur in any dog and at any age. This is an issue that impact the quality of life for both you and your dog, it’s important to take action if you think your dog might have a food allergy. Feeding your dog a hypoallergenic dog food could be the action you need to take.
Symptoms of Food Allergies
There are a lot of different symptoms that can come with a food allergy, but here are the most common ones to look out for:
- Scratching or licking – this will happen throughout the year regardless of the weather or the flea situation. If you’re not sure if your dog is scratching or licking abnormally, look for saliva stains, open sores, and hair loss on the back, belly and tail.
- Behavioral changes – dogs with food allergies may become listless, irritable, or even hyperactive as a result of the constant illness
- Chronic ear infections.
- Chronic diarrhea or vomiting.
These symptoms will typically begin quite suddenly. In most cases they are year-round, but occasionally they occur episodically or seasonally if the dog has irregular access to the food that is causing the problem. If you’re still unsure, Dr. Andrew Jones gives a good overview of how to check for symptoms of food allergies in this video:
Confirming the Allergy
You’ll want to confirm that your dog has an allergy before committing to an expensive regimen of special dog food, and this can be a little tricky. In humans, we can use skin and blood tests to diagnose food allergies, but with dogs we still have to go mostly by trial and error. Most veterinarians will recommend a restricted dietary trial in which the dog is switched to a very limited diet for about twelve weeks (the amount of time that it takes to get allergens completely out of the system). During this period, the dog will eat only a limited set of proteins and carbohydrates that are completely new to the dog, while all other food, including treats and chew toys, are eliminated. If the dog does have an allergy, symptoms should be greatly reduced or eliminated by eight or ten weeks from the start of the trial. At that point, old foods will be reintroduced in a controlled fashion in order to figure out exactly which ingredient was causing the problem. The symptoms should recur within two weeks of introducing an allergen. As with human allergies, there is no cure, but proper management will maintain a good quality of life.
What Exactly Is Hypoallergenic Dog Food?
Once a food allergy is confirmed, the dog must stick to a diet of hypoallergenic dog food or a special homemade diet for the rest of his life. Because of the variety of allergies, it is complicated to define exactly what a hypoallergenic dog food contains. Much like a human with a nut allergy will get no benefit from eating a gluten-free food, a dog food that is completely hypoallergenic to a dog with a beef allergy might be useless to one with a chicken allergy. For that reason, it’s important to know exactly what your dog is allergic to before selecting a diet.
Typically, dogs are allergic to specific proteins, especially those from beef, chicken, eggs, dairy, wheat, and soy. According to studies at Louisiana State University’s Veterinary College, 60 percent of dogs with food allergies are allergic to at least two different foods, and there is high cross-reactivity between similar proteins such as beef and lamb, meaning that a dog who is allergic to one has a high chance of being allergic to the other as well. Most hypoallergenic diets, then, will try to stick to just one protein source to reduce the risk that a dog might be fine with one protein but allergic to the other.
What to Look For
Since many dogs are allergic to one or more common protein sources, most hypoallergenic dog foods will use an exclusive novel protein, meaning that it uses a single protein source that most dogs have never been exposed to. Common ingredients are fish, lamb, venison, duck, rabbit, buffalo, and even kangaroo. Some companies also use proteins that have undergone a special thermal process to reduce their ability to trigger allergies. These will be listed on food labels as ‘modified soy,’ ‘modified chicken livers,’ etc., and are worth a try. Most hypoallergenic dog foods also feature increased amounts of omega 3 fatty acids in order to decrease inflammatory compounds in the skin.
When looking for the right hypoallergenic dog food, the most important thing is to ignore the front of the bag. Instead, read the ingredient list carefully. The best foods will have relatively few ingredients; some of these have ingredient lists so small that they can call themselves limited ingredient diets, and these are generally a good bet. In particular, look for one or at most two protein sources. If you know from your restricted diet trial what your dog is allergic to, it is then a simple matter of selecting a food that does not have that ingredient. If you do not know, you’ll have to take your best guess at what will be hypoallergenic for your dog. Just remember in that case that fewer ingredients means fewer potential allergens and a greater chance of success.
What Is NOT a Hypoallergenic Dog Food
When looking for hypoallergenic dog foods, there are a few warning signs to look out for.
Don’t trust food that is simply labeled ‘hypoallergenic.’ As explained above, there is no food that is hypoallergenic for all dogs. In fact, labeling a food in that way is prohibited by the Center for Veterinary Medicine because it’s an unwarranted health claim. Instead, trust your research and read the back of the label to see if the food is truly hypoallergenic for your particular dog.
‘Lamb and rice’ foods are frequently advertised as being good for allergies and skin, but according to Dr. Kinga Gortel at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital, they are now so popular that most dogs have been exposed to them for long enough to develop allergies. In addition, they usually contain other potentially allergenic proteins in order to make them cheap enough to compete with regular dog foods.
Terms like ‘natural’ and ‘holistic’ are nice to see on your dog food bag, but they have nothing to do with allergies. If a dog is allergic to regular chicken, he’s also going to be allergic to organic chicken. Go ahead and buy all-natural dog food if you want to, but keep reading the labels to make sure that the ingredients themselves are not allergenic.
There are several alternatives to commercial hypoallergenic diets. The first is making the food yourself. This has the benefit of allowing you to know exactly what has gone into it so you can be sure that the food wasn’t contaminated by other products at the mill. Unfortunately, most veterinarians recommend staying away from this option unless you have a background in nutrition or direct veterinary supervision, since it can be quite difficult to make a food at home that will be nutritionally balanced over the long-term.
The other option for really extreme situations in which the dog is allergic to a high number of ingredients is using a prescription diet with hydrolyzed proteins, which have been broken down into small enough fragments that the immune system cannot recognize them. These are only available by veterinary prescription, and are expensive enough that they should generally be avoided unless your dog really is unable to eat a commercial food.
The amount of products and marketing surrounding hypoallergenic dog food can make selecting one a real hassle. The real secret to finding a food that is allergenic for your dog is discovering which item your dog is allergic to and then reading the labels to find the right hypoallergenic dog food for your dog.