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What Makes Dog Food Hypoallergenic

↯ Key takeaway points

  • Dog food allergies are a growing concern for vets and owners
  • The immune system identifies specific foods as harmful, triggering an allergic reaction
  • Common dog food allergens include beef, dairy, chicken, wheat, soy, and lamb
  • Hypoallergenic dog foods are specially made to combat specific allergies and may use novel protein sources or hydrolysis
  • Hypoallergenic diets are effective in reducing allergy flare-ups, and may use hydrolyzed proteins or prescription novel diets
Written by Jay
BsC (Hons) Animal Behaviour & Welfare graduate with a passion for advocating for misunderstood animals.
Licensed veterinarian and animal behaviorist with over three years of experience and a Ph.D. in Poultry Science.
Published on
Thursday 14 October 2021
Last updated on
Monday 31 July 2023
making dog food hypoallergenic
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As a pet parent, it can be daunting to find out that your furry friend has a food allergy. With allergies on the rise for dogs, allergies to dog food are growing concerns for vets and owners alike. What’s more, is a lack of testing available for dog food allergies. This leaves strict elimination trials as the gold standard for food allergy treatment in dogs. Many vets will recommend hypoallergenic dog food for this purpose. But what makes dog food hypoallergenic?

Hypoallergenic dog food is specially made to combat your dog’s specific allergy. If your dog has a chicken allergy, a hypoallergenic diet might use a “novel” source of protein to avoid chicken. Or, a special form of treatment known as hydrolysis might be used to break chicken protein down into tiny pieces that are less detectable by your dog’s immune system. Ready to learn more about hypoallergenic dog food? Let’s start from the beginning.

Dog Food Allergy Causes

Much like people, dogs suffer a range of allergies, including food allergies. According to Banfield Pet Hospital, food allergies affect just 0.2% of dogs. Other sources claim that the number is much higher, ranging anywhere from 10% to 33%. In any case, allergies in dogs are a growing concern for pet parents, with flea and environmental allergies increasing at an alarming rate. But what causes your dog’s body to react so strongly to food in particular?

If your dog has a food allergy, it means that their immune system is identifying a specific food as something harmful. In response, the immune system triggers the body’s cells to release an antibody, immunoglobulin E (IgE). This is to neutralize the food that’s causing the alarm. The next time your dog eats that food, the IgE antibodies sense it and tell the immune system to release histamine, as well as other chemicals, into the blood. These chemicals are what cause your dog’s symptoms. Histamine, for example, regulates itching and causes your dog to itch after contact with that food.

So, what else is at play when it comes to dog food allergies? Are certain breeds more at risk? Indeed, certain dog breeds are more prone to developing allergies than others. For example, German Shepherds, Boxers, Golden Retrievers, and West Highland White Terriers are among the most prone to allergies in general. Also, food allergies can develop at any point in your dog’s life. Research, however, suggests that 33% of dogs develop their food allergies at less than one year old. Overall, though, any dog breed can develop a food allergy at any time in their life.

Common Dog Food Allergens

Among the most common dog food allergies include beef, dairy products, chicken, wheat, soy, lamb, corn, egg, pork, fish, and rice. To date, beef, dairy, and chicken are the most common allergies. This is largely because, the more common the food is, the more common the food allergy. One study supports these findings. The most common food allergen in dogs under this study was beef, at 34%. Next was dairy products at 17. Then, chicken was 15%, wheat 13%, and lamb 5%. Other less common allergens in the study were soy at 6%, corn at 4%, egg at 4%, pork at 2%, and fish and rice at 2%. Lastly, some dogs were also allergic to barley, rabbit, chocolate, kidney beans, and tomatoes.

allergens in dog food
Some dogs react really bad to these ingredients hence the creation of hypoallergenic dog food.

What Are Signs of a Food Allergy

There are many symptoms that can develop in the event of an allergic reaction. Your dog’s symptoms may appear within an hour of eating their food, but some symptoms may not manifest until later. Hives, for example, may appear 6 to 24 hours after eating the offending food. For dogs, the most common signs are itching (or pruritus), sneezing, skin rashes, and eye discharge. Your dog may also develop scaly, leathery, oily skin, hot spots, itchy paws, and hair loss. In some cases, dogs also develop chronic ear infections that just don’t seem to clear up with treatment. The more unusual manifestations of food allergies include seizures, erythema multiforme (red, bullseye-like rashes), lupoid onychodystrophy, and pemphigus (pus-filled lumps). Unfortunately, food allergies often come with the same symptoms as atopy caused by environmental allergens. In fact, food allergies and environmental allergies often co-exist, leading to difficulty with reaching a diagnosis.

What are Hypoallergenic Dog Foods

Hypoallergenic dog foods are made just for dogs with food allergies or IBD. These dog foods are made without common allergens and often involve some form of laboratory testing or process to make sure that they are truly hypoallergenic. It’s also important to note that grain-free diets are not the same as hypoallergenic diets.

Hydrolyzed Protein Diets

To begin, some hypoallergenic foods use hydrolyzed proteins, which means that the protein strands are split into much smaller pieces to avoid triggering the immune system. Most of the leading hypoallergenic dog food producers offer hydrolyzed options for sensitive pups. For example, Hill’s Prescription Diet z/d Original Skin/Food Sensitivities Dry Dog Food is made with hydrolyzed chicken liver. A recent study in dogs found that a diet made with a hydrolyzed poultry-feather meal did not cause allergic reactions in dogs allergic to chicken. Notably, this diet was made with 95% hydrolyzed proteins. In contrast, another diet made with 78% hydrolyzed chicken liver did cause allergic reactions in 40% of the dogs. Because of these differences, it’s best to speak with your vet about trying a prescription diet for your dog. With a suitable hypoallergenic diet, your dog’s allergy flare-ups should reduce significantly.

Prescription Novel Diets

Not all hypoallergenic diets use hydrolyzed proteins. Instead, many vets opt to use prescription novel diets. These diets contain foods that most dogs have not eaten before. For example, one of the newest novel diets is made with alligator protein. Reputable producers of hypoallergenic foods will use lab tests to make sure that no contaminant proteins are in the food. This testing tends to figure into the higher price of the food. Unfortunately, truly novel protein sources are becoming more scarce, with many dogs now eating a wider range of proteins. It’s also important to note that it is not enough to simply avoid dog foods with chicken in them. No commercial diets can be guaranteed to exclude a particular protein, as labels may exclusive other protein sources, and contamination is a real risk without lab tests. Always speak to your vet about the best novel diet for your dog.

Ingredients in Hypoallergenic Dog Foods

It may come as a surprise that most hypoallergenic dog foods still contain preservatives, stabilizers, and coloring. To date, there is little evidence to show that these food additives are responsible for allergies. They will, however, contain alternative sources of proteins, and sometimes carbohydrates, too.

Because many dogs are allergic to specific proteins, the main draw of hypoallergenic food is often its source of protein. These proteins are either novel, such as in alligator dog food, or hydrolyzed, reducing the risk of allergic reactions. If your pooch is allergic to a specific protein, your vet can prescribe a food with an alternative, or altered, protein source. Many hypoallergenic diets are made with less allergenic sources of carbohydrates. For example, cornstarch is not a common source of allergies for dogs. This makes it more suitable for dogs with a corn allergy. If your dog is allergic to a specific source of carbohydrates, your vet will prescribe a food with an alternative source such as this.

As well as this, many hypoallergenic diets are made with ingredients for coat and skin health. This is because food allergies cause itchiness, redness, and hot spots of the skin. To help remedy these problems, these diets often contain coconut oil, Omega-3 fatty acids, and plenty of essential vitamins. If your dog has skin problems due to their allergy, speak to your vet about your options! There may be a diet that will do just the trick for your pup.

dog food that are hypoallergenic
Some hypoallergenic dog food are also grain free – making your dog’s food nutrition balanced.

Hypoallergenic Dog Food: FAQ

Have any more questions or concerns about what makes dog food hypoallergenic? Feel free to check out our handy Frequently Asked Questions section for more details. If in doubt about your pet’s allergy treatment, always ask your vet for advice.

What are the benefits of hypoallergenic dog food?

Hypoallergenic dog food can significantly reduce the risk of further allergic reactions for your dog. This means less itching, sneezing, hair loss, and discomfort for your furry friend. Many hypoallergenic diets also come with ingredients that help to restore the skin and coat after bouts of itching and hair loss, including oils and Omega-3 fatty acids. Speak to your vet about the benefits of hypoallergenic dog food if your dog has a food allergy!

How are dog food allergies treated?

The best treatment for dog food allergies is a food elimination trial. For the trial to be effective, your dog’s therapeutic diet must not contain any ingredients they have eaten before. This means that no other foods, bones, or treats can be given during this trial period. Many vets will ask for this trial to last for a period of 8 to 12 weeks, as it often takes this long for symptoms of food allergy to subside. Where symptoms continue, there could be another hypersensitivity at play. Where the symptoms do clear, the dog is then challenged with their previous diet. If symptoms return, it shows that the dog has a food allergy.

There are a variety of blood tests that can help to diagnose dog allergies, but at present, none are effective at identifying food allergens. There is also little evidence to show that intradermal skin tests are effective, either. As such, no blood test can replace a strict food elimination trial for dog food allergies. Be sure to speak to your vet about starting your dog on a trial diet if you have worries about your pet’s health.

How long does it take for hypoallergenic dog food to work?

It can take anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks for symptoms of food allergies to clear up. So, it can take this long for a hypoallergenic food to offer obvious benefits for your dog. Until then, your dog will benefit from helpful additives like coconut oil and Omega-3 fatty acids, which help to restore shine to the coat and moisture to the skin!

How quickly do food allergies show up in dogs?

The time it takes for your dog’s symptoms to show up can vary considerably. For some dogs, symptoms develop in as little as an hour. For others, hives might appear 6 to 24 hours later. And, in some cases, it can take days for the signs of allergic reaction to appear. This can make it difficult to diagnose a dog with a food allergy.

How do I know what my dog is allergic to?

The route of diagnosis varies depending on the type of allergen. For environmental allergens, RAST or ELISA tests are helpful for diagnosis. For insect bites in particular, intradermal testing is the gold standard for diagnosis. Lastly, for food allergies, food elimination trials are the most effective ways to tell what your dog is allergic to.

So, what makes dog food hypoallergenic? It either excludes common sources of protein, or uses special techniques to break down a protein into smaller pieces. The best option for your dog will depend on their individual case. Speak to your vet about your options if you suspect that your dog has a food allergy.

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