Like humans, dogs can often experience the effects of allergies. Many experts estimate that around 1 in 5 dogs will suffer from allergies at some point in their lives.
Allergic reactions occur when the immune system mistakenly recognizes a foreign substance as dangerous. The production of anti-bodies against this otherwise harmless invader causes the familiar symptoms of allergies – inflammation, itchiness, runny eyes and nose, etc.
The symptoms of allergies aren’t just uncomfortable, but can also be painful, disruptive, and even increase the chances of other illnesses. Dogs can even injure themselves trying to scratch an itch that just won’t go away. That’s why allergies are something every dog owner should be prepared to deal with.
When an allergic reaction is triggered by something in your dog is eating, that’s referred to as a dietary allergy. This inflames the digestive tract, leading to an upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting, as well as external symptoms like rashes, fur loss, or excessive tearing of the eyes.
Allergies are always caused by proteins. The most common dog dietary allergies are to chicken, beef, soy, and wheat. It’s no coincidence that these foods are also the primary sources of protein for the most popular dog foods, as overexposure to a particular ingredient can cause allergies to develop where they never existed before.
Note that while dietary allergies are actually not especially common, food sensitivities can be – and in fact, food intolerance is often misdiagnosed as an allergy, as the symptoms are similar. Food intolerance typically has nothing to do with the immune system, however, but occurs when the digestive system isn’t able to process something present in the food they ate.
Food sensitivity is also not limited to proteins - lactose intolerance, for example, when the digestive system is unable to break down the sugar found in milk, is one of the more common food sensitivities among both humans and dogs. Food sensitivity can also be triggered by synthetic additives like artificial preservatives or colors.
Addressing allergies and sensitivities
Food sensitivities and dietary allergies typically have a similar treatment plan – an elimination diet, meaning, feeding your dog foods that have an intentionally small number of ingredients that are unlikely to trigger digestive problems. These foods usually have just one novel protein source which is unlikely to trigger allergies, like rabbit, duck, turkey, or fish – and very few other ingredients.
If you believe that your dog is suffering from a dietary allergy or intolerance, look for a limited ingredient diet whose ingredient list isn’t just short, but ideally is completely different than what you are currently feeding.
It can take some time for an allergen to completely work its way out of your dog’s system once you start feeding the new diet, so I usually recommend sticking with the elimination diet for at least 8 weeks before making any changes.
If the symptoms continue on that limited diet, that indicates three possibilities: first, that your dog’s allergies are being caused by something in their environment rather than something in their food; second, your dog’s allergies are more broad and triggered by more than one ingredient, some of which are in your dog’s old food, and some of which are in the new diet; or third, the symptoms you’ve seen aren’t being caused by an allergy or food sensitivity, but by another type of illness entirely.
At this point, if you haven’t already, I would recommend consulting with your veterinarian, as they can perform tests to narrow down the cause of your dog’s discomfort.
If switching to these new limited ingredient foods appears to resolve the issue, try gradually re-introducing more familiar foods to your dog one at a time and watch for a reaction. That way, you’ll narrow down exactly what it is that is triggering your dog’s symptoms, so you can avoid it in the future.
Treating the symptoms
While you’re working on figuring out the specific food that’s triggering your dog’s symptoms, there are also steps you can take to reduce the severity of those symptoms, too.
Because the primary symptoms of allergies are inflammation, introducing anti-inflammatory foods and supplements can help reduce swelling, itchiness, and indigestion.
Fish oil and flaxseed are common supplements used in this situation, as these are both rich sources of omega fatty acids, which can help your dog’s body control their own inflammatory response, so that when their allergies are set off by something, they don’t suffer quite as much.
Many natural whole foods and herbs, like leafy greens, berries, turmeric, and ginger, are also associated with a reduction in inflammation. Adding a small amount of these natural remedies to your dog’s diet may help with both the internal and external symptoms of a dietary allergy.
If you suspect the issue may be an intolerance rather than an allergy, digestive supplements can be a huge help, and can even resolve the intolerance entirely in some cases.
For example, since food intolerance is often caused by a lack of natural digestive enzymes or a bacterial imbalance in their gut biome, supplementing your dog’s food with enzymes and probiotics to boost their gut health and function can provide their body exactly what it needs to break down those troublesome ingredients.
If you’re concerned that your dog may be chewing or scratching a particular spot too much as a result of their allergies, and they need immediate relief, some topical anti-itch solutions or special shampoos might help.
It may also be necessary to restrict their ability to reach that spot, using vet wrap and/or a head cone. However, covering or medicating a hot spot can actually make your dog pay even more attention to it as they investigate, so I usually only recommend that as a last resort, such as when a dog’s excessive scratching has led to an open wound that may become infected.
Wishing you and your dog the best of health,
Dr. Edward Tuk
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