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Food intolerances and allergies: a dog owner’s guide

Food intolerances and allergies: a dog owner’s guide

All dogs have an itch every now and then, but if your pooch’s scratching seems constant, it may be a sign that they have an underlying skin condition. Read on for all you need to know about food allergies and their role in causing skin irritation.

Food allergy or food intolerance: what is the difference?

If your pooch seems to be itchier than average, or have a delicate digestive system, it may be that they are suffering with a dietary sensitivity.  How do you tell whether this is caused by a food allergy or a food intolerance, and perhaps more importantly, does it make any difference to how you care for your four-legged friend? Let’s take a closer look at the two conditions:
  • Food allergy
In dogs with a food allergy, the immune system reacts inappropriately to something in their diet, usually a protein – chicken, lamb or beef are common culprits. With food allergies, the immune system gradually becomes sensitised to the protein, so generally signs of illness will only develop after repeated exposure. In other words, the allergy is likely to develop to something that your pooch has eaten regularly.
  • Food intolerance
There is no immune system involvement in food intolerance and your dog will often develop signs of illness on the first time of eating the particular food. One of the most common food sensitivities in our four-legged friends is lactose intolerance.
In reality, it can be tricky to determine whether allergy or intolerance is the cause of your pet’s affliction. However, both conditions are managed in very similar ways so distinguishing between the two is not ever so important.

What are the symptoms of food allergy in dogs?

The commonest signs of food allergy are those affecting the skin:
  • Scratching and skin irritation
  • Hair loss
  • Ear infections
  • Saliva staining of paws – a pink/brown colour

Other symptoms are less common but include:
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Flatulence
  • Sneezing and breathing problems
It’s important to bear in mind that there are lots of other causes for these symptoms too, so it’s always best to ask for your vet’s help in working out what’s up with your poorly pooch.

How is a food allergy or intolerance diagnosed?

If your vet suspects that your doggo may have a dietary sensitivity, they are likely to recommend a diet trial. There are also some allergy blood tests available, but in many cases these do not give definitive results, so vets will often advise diet trials in preference. Your vet will discuss with you what’s the best approach for your pet.

Diet trials: a step-by-step guide

  1. Your vet will recommend a suitable low allergy (hypoallergenic) food

Most dogs who start a dietary trial will be fed a commercially prepared low allergy food. Broadly speaking, there are two different types of food that your vet may recommend:
  • Food containing a new (novel) protein source
The protein source must be one that your pooch has not been exposed to previously – for example rabbit, venison or coley. The carbohydrate source should also be new, which is why many hypoallergenic diets contain ingredients such as sweet potato or oats.
  • Hydrolysed protein diets
In these diets, the protein is broken down into tiny pieces so that the immune system no longer recognises them as a threat.

  1. Gradually switch your dog onto the new food

Over the course of one week, you should switch your pooch over onto their new food. A good guide is for the new diet to make up 25% of the meal on days one and two, 50% on days three and four, 75% on days five and six, and reach 100% on day seven. Making a dietary change gradually like this reduces the chances of upsetting your dog’s tum.

  1. Continue the diet trial for six to eight weeks minimum

When you start, two months of such a strict feeding regime may seem like forever, but it is important to continue for the full length of time. If you stop the trial too soon, you may have to start all over again. Don’t give up!

  1. Remember to feed their special food and nothing else for the length of the trial

If your pooch is used to having titbits between meals, this may be a challenge for you both! You could try offering a small amount of their new food in place of other treats. You may be able to offer a small amount of raw vegetable such as carrot as a reward, but you should discuss this with your vet first.
On completion of the diet trial, if your dog’s symptoms have cleared up, it is likely that food allergy was the cause.

Top tips for a successful diet trial

Diet trials can be challenging both for pooch and owner. Hard enough to resist those puppy dog eyes while you enjoy a ten minute tea break, let alone for two whole months! To make sure all your efforts are not in vain, remember:
  • No treats or dental chews unless your vet says yes!
  • No flavoured doggy toothpaste
  • No dishwasher licking
  • No table scraps
  • No flavoured chewable medications including wormers
It’s not all bad news though. When those puppy eyes come begging, why not try:
  • Giving your pooch some fuss
  • Teaching them a new trick
  • Playing fetch in the garden with a new toy
  • Going out for a walk

A diet trial suggests a food allergy, what next?

Diet trial complete, and your pooch has been diagnosed with a food allergy. You may well wonder what the next step is. One option is to continue on the hypoallergenic food that you used for the diet trial. If your pooch has stopped itching and is happily munching away on their new food, this may be a good choice.
Alternatively, your vet may suggest re-introducing new foods one at a time and trying to work out which food your pooch is sensitive to. This may suit you better if you are keen to offer your four-legged friend a more varied diet in the longer term.

Treatment of food allergies

Food allergies will require lifelong management and cannot be cured. Avoiding the foods that trigger your pet’s signs is the most effective way of controlling the symptoms.
Medication will sometimes be prescribed by your vet both as a short-term measure to help control itching and to treat any secondary issues such as ear infections. Some supplements can also help to soothe the skin, and you can discuss these with your vet to work out what’s best for your pooch. Take a look at some of the soothing products on offer at Dog Skin & Coat Care Supplements | Skin & Coat | Petwell

Should I home prepare a diet for my food-allergic dog?

The saying ‘you are what you eat’ is just as applicable to dogs as it is to us humans. With that in mind, you may be keen to home cook your pooch’s hypoallergenic diet. This has the benefit that you know exactly what you are feeding your dog. However, the significant drawback is that it is very tricky to provide a nutritionally balanced diet so in most cases, a commercially prepared hypoallergenic diet will be best.
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