Coping with canine food allergies

Many dogs suffer from food allergies as a result of their digestive system not being able to cope with certain ingredients.  If your dog suffers from itchy skin, bald patches, ear infections, diarrhoea and vomiting, chances are they could be having an allergic response to something you are feeding them.  If you have ruled out the very common complaints of canine atopic dermatitis (a reaction to external allergens inhaled or absorbed through the skin, such as pollen or dust mites) or flea allergy dermatitis then your next step will be to put your dog onto an elimination diet to discover the culprit for his dietary allergies.


What is a food allergy? Proteins from various foods (not just meat) are normally broken down into smaller pieces in the stomach and then later into simple amino acids in the small intestine. Amino acids are absorbed into the gut as nutrients. In a healthy gut, large proteins will not be allowed through the gut wall until they have been digested properly but sometimes malnutrition, illnesses such as gastroenteritis or inherited digestive problems can weaken the guts ability to break down proteins adequately.  When whole proteins are not broken down into manageable chunks of amino acids before they enter the gut wall, the body can experience an allergic response because of the invasion (immune hypersensitivity).

Food allergy or food intolerance? If your dog only suffers with diarrhoea and vomiting and does not display the symptoms of itchy and sore skin, it may be he just has an intolerance to the offending ingredient rather than an actual allergy. If you do not know which ingredient your dog is having trouble digesting, an elimination diet using single protein and carbohydrate diets is still a sensible course of action for dogs with a food intolerance.

What are the signs?

The symptoms of a food allergy can vary from dog to dog. Some experience only recurring ear infections while others will suffer from itchy dry skin which leads to excessive scratching and licking.  Your dog may also experience vomiting and diarrhoea in response to the food allergen. If your dog is displaying these symptoms talk to your vet. If he or she feels a dietary allergy is likely they may suggest you put your dog onto an elimination diet.

What is an elimination diet?

An elimination diet is a simple way to eliminate potential culprits for your dog’s allergies.

  • Put your dog onto a very simple diet with only one protein source and one carbohydrate for 10 weeks
  • Introduce no other food, treats or chews during this trial period, so make sure you let the whole family know what you are doing!
  • If after 10 weeks the symptoms are the same, switch to another protein source and try again

If you find you cannot narrow down an ingredient talk to your vet about the possibility of your dog being sensitive to other allergens such as pollen or dust mites.

Foods to avoid and foods to try

Dairy, wheat and beef contain the most common allergens.  Try more novel protein sources such as venison, rabbit, fish or duck mixed with brown rice, potato or oats.

What to look for in sensitive dog diets
  • Novel, single protein sources e.g. venison or fish
  • Hydrolysed protein that is already easier to digest
  • Antioxidants to assist with all round cell health in the gut and skin
  • Prebiotics to nourish friendly bacteria in the gut
  • Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids for strong, healthy skin and fur

Hypoallergenic = highly digestible

Many dog food brands now produce diets that are hypoallergenic, meaning litteraly ‘low in allergens’. These diets avoid the common trigger foods such as beef and wheat and often include more novel protein sources.  Some diets go even further.  Royal Canin’s Hypoallergenic Veterinary Diet is made using hydrolysed protein that is broken down into smaller parts already making it much easier to digest. If your dog’s allergies are more serious, you may want to talk to your vet about moving your dog onto a hydrolysed protein diet.

What else can I do?

Once you have found a diet that agrees with your dog and that he finds easy to digest, you can help him to avoid allergic reactions in future by ensuring he has a healthy gut and immune system. General all round good quality nutrition is the key here.  You may with to feed a diet with natural antioxidants to help boost your pet’s immunity or with digestive aids like prebiotics MOS or FOS which nourish friendly bacteria in the gut.  You should also carefully monitor what your dog eats as munching on rotting flesh, nibbling on toxic plants or rifling through rubbish can lead to severe digestive upsets that can damage the gut.

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