Is my dog’s diet to blame? – Allergies and intolerances in our dogs
Dr Jacqueline Boyd
BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, PGCHE, CHES, FHEA, MRSB
In-house Nutritional Consultant
At Skinner’s, we are passionate about making sure that we can provide the most suitable diet for you and your dog. Part of that is making sure that we support you by advising what diet might be the best option if you are concerned that your dog has an adverse reaction to certain foods or even food ingredients. Indeed, owners reporting concerns that their dogs have had reactions to their food are a common query that comes to our nutritional advice team.
Those reactions take many forms, from skin issues, scratching and anal gland issues to behavioural and digestive issues. However, these symptoms are not always related to diet and can have many other causes. Indeed, scientific evidence suggests that diet is responsible for less than 10% of skin issues and that adverse reactions to diet are only responsible for between 10-20% of all allergic responses in both dogs and cats. This means that while a dietary change might be useful, it is certainly no guarantee of a cure or an improvement! Let’s explore what this might mean for you and your dog and how we can help advise and support you.
Is it an allergy, a hypersensitivity or an intolerance?
An adverse reaction to food is identified as a response to an ingested food or food ingredient that is abnormal. Where that abnormal response is a result of the immune system (which is responsible for protecting the body from “danger” but can sometimes get it wrong!) the adverse reaction is termed an “allergy” or a “hypersensitivity”. Where the immune system is not directly involved, the reaction is termed an “intolerance”.
True allergies or hypersensitivities to specific ingredients can be extremely dangerous and need correct diagnosis and management but do appear to be quite rarely reported. On the other hand, intolerances to foodstuffs and/or specific ingredients appear to be rather more common, and while potentially less dangerous than an allergic response, the symptoms of an intolerance can be distressing for both dog and owner. What is also possible is that an intolerance can be transient and short-lived, perhaps because of a gastrointestinal infection, or can be rather longer in duration. If you suspect that your dog does show adverse reactions to food or even specific ingredients, it is important to initially seek veterinary advice and guidance to ensure a correct diagnosis before trying different strategies that might prolong the issue!
What foods and ingredients do dogs have adverse reactions to?
We know that there are some ingredients that dogs do have more adverse reactions, whether true allergies or intolerances to. The most common ingredients that cause adverse reactions are soya, dairy, beef and other animal derived proteins. Grain and plant-based ingredients such as wheat and maize appear to be less likely to be responsible for adverse reactions than commonly thought.
What can an adverse reaction to food look like?
Dogs that are having an adverse reaction to a food or an ingredient can show several different symptoms. This is one of the reasons that makes investigating potential causes so difficult, as many symptoms can be the result of other issues! Symptoms can include swelling of the face and mouth (this is often a true allergy and can be life threatening in extreme cases, so veterinary advice should be sought immediately), skin issues, scratching, ear issues, vomiting, colitis, diarrhoea or signs of other digestive discomfort.
Can changing my dog’s diet make a difference?
In the case of a diagnosed allergy, hypersensitivity or intolerance, a dietary change to eliminate either the food or the ingredient can be useful in managing your dog’s situation. However,
before rushing to a dietary change, there are some other points worth checking first!
1. Eliminate ectoparasites and other environmental issues that can cause skin problems, such as fleas or ticks.
Even if you never see any evidence of fleas, they might be there, and control of flea populations is dependent on both environmental control as well as “on-animal” control. Make sure ALL areas that your dog has access to (including the car which is often forgotten!) are treated to eliminate fleas. Monitor your dog for contact with other animals (such as cats, rabbits, sheep, deer and other dogs!) that might be a source of infestation.
2. Rule out other skin, ear or gastrointestinal infections.
With the help of your vet, always ensure a correct diagnosis. There is no point in altering your dog’s diet if in fact, they have a fungal, bacterial or other infection causing the itchiness or other symptoms. Sometimes that infection takes a little work to identify and might need skin scrapings or other tests for confirmation. Appropriate and correct treatment can then be prescribed by your vet.
3. Allergy tests
Allergy tests might be useful, but only after other potential causes have been eliminated and many are not fully effective at identifying true dietary sensitivities!
4. Consider your dog’s breeding and genetics.
Some breeds and breed crosses have a genetic make-up that predisposes them to skin, digestive and other conditions that might benefit from nutritional support. For example, Arctic breeds (think Malamutes and Huskies) often suffer from zinc deficiencies, so considering the levels of dietary zinc is important. If you are at all concerned, seek veterinary advice.
5. Don’t over-supplement complete diets.
Some skin conditions can be a consequence of over-supplementation with certain vitamins, vitamin A especially! If you are feeding a complete dog food, there is no need to supplement with additional vitamins and minerals. The Field and Trial range are formulated as complete diets for dogs and so no additional supplementation is required.
6. Consider the potential for “food poisoning”.
This is a frequent cause of gastrointestinal upset in dogs and can result from the accidental ingestion of contaminated feed (perhaps with bacteria or other substances) or the consumption of foods that are dangerous for dogs such as chocolate, raisins, grapes, onions or other substances such as painkillers (ibuprofen is especially dangerous for dogs for example). If you suspect your dog has ingested something that has made them ill or might have the potential to make them ill, seek veterinary advice immediately!
If all other causes have been eliminated, a dietary change might be worth trying in the form of an elimination diet. Essentially, you alter the diet in a way to eliminate potential ingredients that might result in a sensitivity or intolerance. It’s important in undertaking an elimination diet that you think about EVERYTHING your dog eats, not just their usual food! That includes all treats and extras that your dog gets.
The Skinner’s Field and Trial range includes diets that are free from specific ingredients that might be linked to sensitivities. Our diets are also rich in essential fatty acids (EFAs) that are linked to skin and coat health. If you have eliminated all other causes for your dog’s possible skin or digestive symptoms and would like to consider a dietary change, feel free to contact us for some friendly, practical advice about what might be most suitable for your dog’s situation.