Typical Food Allergy Symptoms in Dogs

Food allergy is a common allergy in dogs and can make life miserable for your canine companion. It doesn’t discriminate; it can occur in dogs of any age, breed or gender. Puppies, as young as 6 months of age, can start to show symptoms of food allergy. Or they may not appear until your pet is middle-aged or even older.

While some dogs with food allergy have gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea, most suffer from constant skin itching and inflammation. Typically they lick their feet, scratch their bottom, scratch their belly, and have chronic ear problems.

There are other allergies that can cause similar symptoms, namely atopy, an allergy to dust and pollens. The main difference is that atopy starts out seasonal, whereas food allergies occur year round. Food allergies also respond to a food trial with a hypoallergenic diet. .hereas dogs with atopy show no improvement at all.

Another characteristic of dietary sensitivities is that they don’t always respond very well to corticosteroids. These are drugs that reduce the body’s response to allergens. After taking the medication, skin redness disappears and the itching and scratching stops.

Food Allergies and Secondary Infections

When the skin becomes inflamed and irritated, then secondary infections are likely to occur. Bacteria and fungi can multiply in damaged skin, and the resultant infections make your dog even more miserable. Fungal infections give dogs that musty smell and greasy feel, and bacterial dermatitis is itchy. The scratching becomes worse, the skin becomes more inflamed, and the vicious cycle continues.

dog skin allergy

Food Allergies and Ear Infections

The skin lining the ear canals is similar to that on your dog’s body. This means that anything that causes skin inflammation can affect the ears. Redness and irritation are the initial symptoms. Meanwhile, your dog will scratch his ear and shake his head to get relief.

Again, just like the skin, secondary infections develop which result in discharge and a bad smell. Usually, both ears are affected but it’s possible for food allergies to cause problems in just one ear.

Continual shaking and scratching of the ears often result in an aural hematoma. Blood vessels in the flap of the ear, or pinna, become damaged which results in a blood-filled swelling that may take up the whole pinna. This often needs surgical drainage, and it can occur more than once in an itchy ear.

Any dog with frequent and ongoing ear infections, even without any other signs of itching and scratching, should be evaluated for a food allergy.

Managing Dog Food Allergy Symptoms

The two aspects of managing allergies in dogs are:

  1. reduce their exposure to the allergen
  2. and to treat the symptoms

Reducing exposure to a food allergen involves feeding your dog a hypoallergenic food for 8-12 weeks. This is to see if his symptoms resolve. If they do, then you know that food is playing a role in his itchy skin. You can then start to introduce various foods one at a time to see if they make him scratch again. Your aim is to develop a list of foods that are safe for him to eat. And another list of foods that must never pass his lips.

Tip: Check out tips and advice on picking the diet for your dog.

Treating the symptoms includes the use of medication such as antihistamines and corticosteroids to reduce the itching and inflammation. Antibiotics and anti-fungal shampoos to control the secondary infection. Oatmeal shampoos are very soothing, and omega fatty acids have a natural anti-inflammatory effect which can be very good for the skin and coat. Ear infections usually resolve with the use of ear drops. Unless the underlying allergy is managed, the problem will recur.

Dog food allergy symptoms are uncomfortable for your dog and distressing for you as you watch him constantly scratch, lick and bite himself for relief. Your vet can help you manage those symptoms while helping you choose an appropriate diet to control his allergies.

Hypoallergenic Dog Food

The only way you can check if your dog has a food allergy is to conduct a feeding trail. This involves feeding him a hypoallergenic dog food for up to 12 weeks, to see if his itching and scratching resolves. Check our resource on identifying food allergy symptoms in dogs.

Dogs tend to become allergic to a protein or carbohydrate that is in the food they have been eating for quite some time, such as chicken, beef, corn, wheat or soy. A hypoallergenic food won’t have any of these ingredients and instead will have unusual protein and carbohydrate sources so they won’t cause any reactions.

There are several types of hypoallergenic dog foods available. Some will suit your dog better than others, so you may need to try a few. The food trial must involve food that your dog can’t be allergic to, so something they have never eaten before.

Novel Protein Hypoallergenic Diets

Most prescription hypoallergenic diets contain novel, or unusual, proteins and carbohydrates, such as kangaroo, rabbit, pea, sweet potato or oats. Most dogs wouldn’t have been exposed to these ingredients in their normal diets.

The prescription diets that are available from veterinarians do cost a little more than the hypoallergenic diets from the pet store. However, you do get what you pay for. Tests on foods have shown that the over the counter products aren’t necessarily free of allergens. There is often cross-contamination during the manufacturing process, and they may contain traces of soy, beef or poultry. This means that when it comes to doing a food trial, they may well be a waste of your hard earned money.

Hydrolyzed Protein Diets

The process of hydrolyzing protein breaks down the individual components into particles that are so small that they don’t cause allergies. This sounds good in theory, but many dermatologists believe that they can still cause reactions in dogs.

Generally speaking, around 75% of food allergic dogs will respond to a hydrolyzed protein diet.

Home Cooked Hypoallergenic Diets

Some people prefer to cook their hypoallergenic diet for their dogs, using just one protein source and one carbohydrate source. This is fine, as long as they are only used for the duration of a feeding trial. They aren’t nutritionally balanced so are not a good choice for long-term feeding.

Depending on the results of a food trial, your dog may respond best to a home cooked diet. If you do want to continue this method of feeding, then it’s a good idea to consult a veterinarian who is a member of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. They can develop a diet specifically for your dog that has all the nutrients in the right amounts to keep him in the best of health.

Whatever hypoallergenic food you choose for your dog, it’s important that he doesn’t get any other foods, treats or snacks during the 12-week trial. This isn’t easy, especially if you have other pets or young children who want to share their leftovers with him. However, if you can diagnose his food allergy, and identify what foods aren’t good for him, you can control his itching without resorting to long-term medication.

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