Welcome to our complete guide to hypoallergenic dog food. Helping you to find out whether it really works, and which type could be the best choice for your dog.
Does your pet have itchy skin? Has your veterinarian suggested that your dog might have a food allergy?
If so, then you’ve probably started researching hypoallergenic foods for dogs and realized just how many options are out there.
While many of these diets do work, you need to understand food allergies and how to treat them before switching your dog to an allergy dog food.
Otherwise your diet may not be effective, costing you unnecessary money and not addressing your dog’s allergies.
Dog food allergies
Pet allergies are frustrating for dogs and owners alike. They are difficult to diagnose, and there are just so many allergens out there.
If your dog has allergies, then you have probably considered the possibility that the culprit behind your dog’s itchy skin condition, scientifically known as atopic dermatitis, is a food allergy.
Contrary to popular belief, food allergies only make up about 10 percent of all cases of atopic dermatitis.
So before you switch your dog to a hypoallergenic diet, talk to your vet to see if your dog’s allergies have another possible cause, like flea allergy dermatitis.
If your veterinarian does suspect food allergies, they may recommend a hypoallergenic elimination diet to try to isolate the allergen in your dog’s food.
Most dog food allergies are caused by beef, chicken, eggs, corn, wheat, soy, and milk. Since these ingredients are prevalent in most commercial dog foods, simply switching to a different food is not enough.
This is where hypoallergenic dog foods come in.
Dog food allergy symptoms
First, though, you need to figure out if your dog actually has a food allergy.
There are two types of adverse food reactions in dogs: food allergies and food intolerances. They are commonly grouped together even though one is an allergic reaction and the other is not.
The most common symptoms of food allergies in dogs are itchiness, ear infections, swelling, scaly skin, and pimples. These itchy patches typically involve the ears, feet, face, forelegs, and groin area.
Your dog will let you know they are itchy by scratching, biting, chewing, or licking at their skin. This can lead to red, irritated areas that are prone to secondary bacterial infections.
Bacterial skin infections appear red, inflamed, and may result in scaly skin, scabs, and painfully sensitive lesions.
Allergies can also lead to swelling and redness in the mouth and throat, making it difficult for your dog to swallow and breath.
Not all reactions are skin related.
Food intolerance and allergies can cause excessive gas, abdominal upset and discomfort, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Diagnosing dog food allergies
Dog food allergies are often confused with flea allergy dermatitis or atopic dermatitis.
Sometimes owners are convinced that their dog has a food allergy, when in fact it is flea allergy dermatitis or atopic dermatitis. Other times, since food allergies are less common, they go undiagnosed.
There is no reliable test to determine if your dog has a food allergy.
Instead, veterinarians recommend an elimination diet to isolate the allergen.
Elimination diets only work if dogs are exclusively fed a food that contains no ingredients found in their old food. This is why simply switching food brands does not always work, because ingredients like corn, wheat, soy, milk, eggs, beef, and chicken are found in most dog food brands.
The elimination diet should have a “novel” protein, which just means a protein like venison or duck that is not commonly found in dog food, and a novel carbohydrate, like rice or potato.
Some dog foods offer hydrolyzed protein diets.
Hydrolyzed protein diets hydrolyze the proteins down to small molecular weights. This makes them significantly less likely to cause an allergic reaction.
Ideally, the elimination diet should offer complete and balanced nutrition to meet all your dog’s nutritional needs.
Owners also must abstain from giving any treats, other foods, and even flavored dog toothpaste during the elimination period. For those of us who can’t bear to leave our furry friends without a snack, offer them kibble from their elimination diet food as a treat instead.
Veterinarians suggest keeping your dog on the elimination diet for up to three months to see if the clinical signs of the food allergy disappear.
Once the symptoms are gone, each ingredient from the old food is slowly reintroduced, one at a time, to see which one caused the allergic reaction or intolerance.
What is hypoallergenic dog food?
Food allergies are in the news a lot these days for people and for pets.
So how do you wade through the shelves of food claiming to be hypoallergenic, grain-free, and all of the other labels?
The first thing to remember is that your dog does not necessarily need a grain-free diet or a diet made from ‘all natural’ ingredients.
He needs an elimination diet.
The only real hypoallergenic dog food refers to either an elimination diet or a diet that has hydrolyzed protein.
Remember that your hypoallergenic elimination diet cannot contain any of the ingredients from your old food. A grain-free diet made with venison might sound great, but if it also contains soy, corn, eggs, milk, chicken, or beef it may not help.
This, unfortunately, usually narrows down your list quickly, and as anyone who has dealt with food allergies in dogs is aware, can mean you have to choose a more expensive food.
Take your old pet food bag’s ingredient label with you to the place where you buy your pet food. Look for a food that does not contain any of the ingredients on the old bag, keeping in mind that even things like flavor additives and coloring can cause an adverse reaction.
If this sounds complicated, don’t panic.
The easiest way to find the best hypoallergenic dog food for your dog is to talk to your veterinarian.
There are prescription diets available that can take the work out of your search, and your veterinarian may even be able to recommend a homemade diet plan.
Best dog food for allergies
If your dog has a food allergy, then putting her on an elimination diet to discover the allergen or allergens is your first step.
Once you know what your dog is allergic to, then you can find her the best dog food for allergies that does not contain any ingredients that will cause an allergic reaction.
Finding out what is causing your dog’s food allergy takes time.
Once she has been on an elimination diet long enough for her symptoms to clear up, adding old ingredients back in can add on weeks, if not months, until you isolate the source.
All of this work is worth it, however, if you can get her back to her old, healthy self.
You can also keep her on some elimination diets indefinitely, as long as it is complete and balanced. However, these diets can be expensive.
Prescription diets, like the diets offered by Hill’s Pet Nutrition, offer a variety of elimination diets and hydrolyzed protein diets.
These foods have been clinically tested to reduce adverse reactions in food and inflammatory skin conditions.
In addition, some of these diets offer support for your dog’s skin by providing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to help manage inflammation and improve coat condition.
As you search for the best dog foods for dogs with allergies, look for novel proteins like lamb, salmon, venison, duck, and rabbit, and novel carbohydrates like rice and potatoes.
Brands targeted towards food allergies often have ‘limited ingredients’ in the name to help further narrow your search.
Best dog food for skin allergies
The allergic reaction in your dog’s skin associated with a food allergy or environmental allergy is uncomfortable for your dog and hard for sympathetic owners to see.
Some dog food diets, as mentioned early, offer additional support for the skin by adding in omega-3 and 6 fatty acids.
Hill’s also offers a prescription diet that may help manage atopic dermatitis in dogs.
The formula helps inhibit inflammatory responses, supports skin and coat health, and stabilizes the skin barrier to prevent allergic reactions.
Studies showed significant improvement in dogs with allergies who were fed Hill’s Derm Defense on top of conventional care.
When combined with a treatment plan, a dog food for dogs with skin allergies may help manage your dog’s reaction to environmental allergens.
Talk to your veterinarian about a prescription diet or about a comparable commercial dog food diet, if available.
Hypoallergenic puppy food
Feeding puppies is already complicated, especially if you own a large breed dog like a Labrador, German Shepherd, or any of the giant breeds.
These dogs need diets with lower levels of fat, calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D to prevent them from growing too quickly.
Accelerated growth leads to developmental orthopedic disease, so the last thing we want to do is start messing around with their diets.
If you think your puppy requires a hypoallergenic puppy food, talk to your veterinarian to see what brands they recommend. You may have to switch them to an adult diet to address their allergies.
Hypoallergenic dog treats
No outside food or treats is a major rule for your dog’s elimination diet. But what about afterwards? Are there hypoallergenic dog treats that your dog can consume safely?
Luckily for your dog, the answer is yes.
Hill’s and several other companies carry hypoallergenic dog treats made with hydrolyzed proteins.
However, you should hold off on feeding even these treats until after your dog has finished their elimination diet, unless your veterinarian tells you otherwise.
If you know the ingredient that your dog is allergic to, shopping for treats is easier.
Dogs with allergies to wheat, for instance can usually have treats labeled ‘grain-free.’
You can also talk with your veterinarian about other treat alternatives, like non-toxic fruits and vegetables.
Hypoallergenic dog food
Finding out whether your dog needs hypoallergenic dog food, finding the right brand and the source of their allergy can be time consuming.
For more information about food allergies and the best dog foods for dogs with allergies, consult your dog’s veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist.
For more information about raising and training your Labrador, don’t forget to order your copy of The Labrador Handbook!
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Further Reading and Resources
- Bowlin, C. DVM. ‘Novel Proteins & Food Allergies.’ Ask the Expert. NAVC Clinician’s Brief. March 2010.
- Paterson, S. MA, VetMB, DVD, DECVD, MRCVS. ‘Diet-Related Canine Skin Conditions.’ Clinician’s Brief. December 2016.
- Lauten, S. PhD. ‘Nutritional Risks to Large-Breed Dogs: From Weaning to the Geriatric Years.’ Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice. Volume 36. 2006.
- MacLeay, J. DVM, PhD, Dip.ACVIM. ‘Innovation in Nutritional Management of Canine Atopic Dermatitis.’ 2016 Hill’s Global Symposium. 2016.
- Moriello, K. DVM, DACVD. ‘Canine Atopic Dermatitis.’ Merck Veterinary Manual.
- White, S. DVM, DACVD. ‘Overview of Food Allergy (Adverse food reactions).’ MSD Manual.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website