Does your dog have itchy skin, red paws, recurrent ear infections, and digestive issues? Allergies may be the problem.
Do you already know what proteins your dog is allergic to? Make sure foods don't contain them by trying our Dog Food Finder.
Allergies in dogs can be really confusing as the symptoms don't match up to what we think of for food allergies, and these can be further confounded by the presence of environmental allergies. While allergies can be difficult to figure out and manage, it is still possible, especially with the help of your vet. Make sure that you book a vet visit to discuss your concerns before starting any plan or treatment, as your vet will help you move forward in the best way.
Contrary to popular belief, most food allergies in dogs are proteins and not carbohydrates. While carbohydrate allergies do exist, the vast majority of dogs with food allergies are allergic to the common proteins, such as chicken, egg, milk, beef, and pork. However, dogs can be allergic to proteins from grain or vegetable sources as well, and like with meat proteins, they are more likely to react to the common ones such as wheat, soy, and corn.
Confusingly, the most common symptoms of food allergies are redness and itching of the skin, particularly in the feet, armpits and groin, and ears. Additionally, dogs are more likely to start reacting to proteins that they have had lots of exposure to before, which is why the common proteins are the most likely offenders. This is because the immune system becomes abnormally sensitized to these proteins as they pass through the gut wall, and over time, they mount an attack every time they are exposed to the proteins.
An elimination diet is a good way of finding out what foods your dog is allergic to, but do be aware that it takes 6-8 weeks to complete, and your dog's diet needs to be very strict to get good results.
Elimination diets involve feeding something that your dog is definitely not allergic to for 6-8 weeks until symptoms are completely resolved, then slowly adding in other foods one by one and watching for flare-ups. If a food is added and symptoms return, then you know your dog is allergic to that food item. That's why it is important to completely follow the diet instructions and ask your vet if anything is ambiguous or unclear.
There are two ways you can start off an elimination diet trial:
Feed a completely novel protein diet
Feed a hydrolyzed protein diet
A novel protein diet is a food containing protein sources that your dog hasn't had before, and therefore, can't react to. A hydrolyzed protein diet is where the proteins have been broken down (hydrolyzed) to small enough pieces that the body can't determine where they're from, and so can't react to them. Hydrolyzed protein diets are a type of veterinary prescription diet. Novel protein diets are commonly based on duck, venison, kangaroo (although kangaroo is now becoming quite popular and may not be novel for many dogs), crocodile, and fish (same issue with fish now as with kangaroo, though). Of course, if your dog has had one of these novel proteins before, it will not be suitable. If you are unsure, ask your vet which option is best for your dog.
Either way, when your dog is in the initial stages of the trial, it is incredibly important that they only eat the novel protein diet or the hydrolyzed protein diet, drink water, and nothing else. Table scraps, treats, or even licking out the bowl of another dog can cause them to flare up and needing to restart the trial.
Environmental allergies (atopy)
Environmental allergies, also called atopy or atopic dermatitis, occur when the immune system overreacts to common things in the environment such as dust, pollens, grasses, and other plants. Figuring out which items your dog is allergic to often requires a referral to a veterinary dermatologist for intradermal testing. With the results, the dermatologist can actually formulate a "vaccine" to help your dog's immune system react less to these environmental allergens. This is called allergen-specific immunotherapy.
There are also dietary and coat care options that can be done to help reduce atopic symptoms.
Skin support diets contain ingredients that help to strengthen the skin's natural barrier against foreign material. These are usually omega fatty acids, which can also be given as a dietary supplement, or as a topical preparation. Skin support diets are also formulated to reduce the impact of food allergies, and often contain less common proteins, hydrolyzed proteins, and extra vitamin E.
Coat care options include soothing shampoos that can wash out allergens from your dog's coat, medicated shampoos to treat secondary infections, or sprays that mimic the coat's natural barrier. However, do keep in mind that shampoos will strip the natural barrier from your dog's coat, so ensure that you are able to replace it afterwards with either a topical omega oil, or a spray. QV Oil or other unscented, high quality bath oils can be loaded into a spray bottle for easier application.