When my yorkie Frankie was a puppy, we offered him and his fur family a bit of our Thanksgiving turkey to taste. All the other pups loved it, and enjoyed it in the same way they enjoy other poultry - regularly and without incident. Frankie, though, was pooping from one end of the house to the other. He had, we discovered, a sensitivity to turkey.
While there’s plenty Frankie will eat, it was interesting that he couldn’t eat turkey, a rather common ingredient of many premium dog foods. But dogs can be allergic or sensitive to all sorts of foods, from meat or wheat to dairy, just like humans. Of course, it’s harder for them to let us know.
While food sensitivities and allergies are distinct — just ask any human with a dairy allergy vs. lactose intolerance how important and risky that distinction can be! - it was an interesting glimpse into a world that our family had not previously considered. We all know there’s a long list of foods that are toxic to dogs and to always be avoided. But beyond that, there’s a more individual truth. Dogs, like their human family members, can have food sensitivities and allergies.
There are several ways for an owner to strongly suspect allergies rather than actually “know” a dog has allergies. “A true diagnosis is usually performed by a veterinarian using a combination of diagnostics, history, and sometimes by elimination,” according to The American Kennel Club’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Jerry Klein.
Depending on the type of allergy (contact allergies, vaccine reactions, food allergies, atopic dermatitis, anaphylaxis, etc.) signs can vary.
“Facial swelling and urticaria (hives), are signs associated with an allergic response such as insect bites or vaccine reactions,” says Dr. Klein. “Contact allergies would manifest itself with skin redness and irritation (erythema) localized at point of contact with the irritant. Skin issues and licking of all feet are commonly seen with atopy (allergic reaction to environmental pollens and molds, etc) and certain food sensitivities. An anaphylactic reaction is an acute extreme allergic reaction manifested by a drop in blood pressure, collapse, shock, and possibly death,” says Dr. Klein.
Allergens can come from a variety of sources and sometimes food allergies are from the quality of the food, not the food itself. “If your dog is having unexplained rashes, hives, itching, etc — it may be because she is having an allergic reaction,” says Johnna Devereaux, a clinical pet nutritionist.
Food allergies in dogs are much less common than people seem to believe, and much like with humans, a food elimination trial can be very helpful. “The only definitive way to determine if your dog has an allergy to a specific food ingredient is to complete what’s known as a food elimination trial, which is a strict 8-week diet consisting of only a hypoallergenic food, ideally one available by prescription from a veterinarian to ensure purity,” says Christie Long, DVM, Head of Veterinary Medicine at Modern Animal.
One option is to have the vet do a blood test. “Blood serum allergy tests are only proven to be accurate for environmental allergens — so if these all come back clear — the only true way to test for food sensitivities is through an elimination diet,” says Devereaux.
While some may seem obvious - rashes, upset stomachs, other signs are less clear. “Symptoms of food allergies in dogs can include vomiting, diarrhea, and itchy skin, especially ears,” says Long. If your dog’s symptoms resolve during the diet trial, it’s a good bet than one or more ingredients in his prior food are causing an allergic reaction.
When pets do have food allergies, they are most often caused by protein - specifically animal protein. “Widely used proteins in the pet food industry like beef or chicken are generally the triggers,” says Katie Smith of New Road Foods
For dogs with food sensitivities, it's important to use a food with a single, unique source of animal protein (i.e., fish). “Pet foods with significant doses of Omega 6 and Omega 3 Fatty Acids in the appropriate ratios also help to support healthy skin and coat conditions that can suffer when a pet suffers from food sensitivities,” says Smith.
And if you discover your dog has a food sensitivity or allergy? It’s important to take note of and plan future meals accordingly. Of course, if your dog is anything like my Frankie, don’t worry: They’ll find plenty of other foods to love!