A limited ingredient diet is made with less ingredients compared to traditional pet foods, as dogs who are showing the symptoms of allergies or sensitivities may have an unexplained food allergy. It is also commonly referred to as a hypoallergenic diet. Reducing the total number of different ingredients in your dog’s food is the first step to determining the root cause of their allergy, and also to reducing their allergy symptoms. 

Most commercial pet foods contain a combination of meats, vegetables, grains, legumes, and more. They often contain meats from multiple types of animals, too.  When a pet is showing signs of a food allergy, it can be difficult to single out the catalyst when your pet is on a diet with a broad list of ingredients, as there are too many variables.

A limited ingredient diet is best in situations where a pet’s diet needs to be simplified. For example, a dog with ongoing digestive issues may be reacting poorly to a protein in their food, or a dog suffering from itchy skin patches may have an allergy to certain grains. In order to set a new “ingredient baseline”, a limited ingredient diet dog food may be used.

The Difference Between Allergies and Sensitivities in Dogs

The terms “allergy” and “sensitivity” are loosely used among pet owners, however, it is important to understand the distinction between the two. The difference between an allergy and a sensitivity is essentially the body’s reaction. An allergy occurs when a reaction is triggered by the immune system, where a sensitivity is a reaction triggered in the digestive system. Although the symptoms can be very similar, true food allergies in dogs are actually quite rare.

While most allergies are triggered by foods, it is also common for dogs to have seasonal allergies. In some cases, dogs may also react to chemicals in shampoos, household cleaning products, and more.

Identifying The Symptoms of Food Allergies and Sensitivities in Dogs

The symptoms of a food allergies and sensitivities include:

  • Hives
    • Commonly on the belly, chest, and back, but can be anywhere on the body.
  • Non-seasonal itching
    • Dogs will seasonal allergies will only be reactive during certain times of the year. Food allergies are persistent as long as the dog is exposed to the causing ingredient(s).
  • Chronic ear problems
    • Typically one ear will be worse off than the other. Dark, smelly yeast builds up and irritates the ear. Dogs will flap and scratch their ears persistently. Without proper treatment, an ear infection may occur.
  • Bloating
    • Swollen-looking stomach. Depending on the dog, the discomfort can make them restless, lethargic, and irritable.
  • Excessive gas
    • A little bit of flatulence here and there is a normal biological function. However, dogs reacting poorly to something in their diet may not only toot more often, but they may also burp more often, too.
  • Diarrhea
    • Inconsistencies in stool production go hand-in-hand with digestive issues.
  • Vomiting
    • While not as common a symptom as others listed above, some dogs may vomit their food as their stomach rejects it. Generally, dogs are more likely to vomit their food because of poor eating habits rather than an allergic reaction.

How Do Dogs Develop Food Allergies?

A food allergy is the body’s immune system reacting to an incoming protein detected as a threat. In order for the body to have this reaction, it must have had previous exposure to the protein. In some cases, a pet may develop allergies to a protein that they have eaten for many years. Just as humans can develop new allergies over time, so can pets. Most often, dogs develop allergies because of a genetic predisposition.

A food sensitivity is the body’s reaction to any ingredient in the digestive system. There does not need to be any previous exposure for this reaction to happen. This is caused simply because your dog has a difficult time digesting a particular ingredient.

Both reactions illicit similar symptoms, so it is often difficult to tell the difference between the two. Reactions to food allergies and sensitivities in dogs are different compared to humans. When exposed to an allergen like shellfish, the human body may react by swelling of the throat. A dog, however, exposed to the same protein may react with itchy hives. Much of the canine immune system is expressed through the skin and coat.

How To Determine What Your Dog Is Allergic To

Whether it’s an allergy or sensitivity, the treatment process begins the same way; by eliminating variables. First, make a list of all the common ingredients in your dog’s diet, including food, treats, and any extras. Next, find a new diet that does not contain the common ingredients on your list. The key here is to start with new ingredient sources your dog has not been previously exposed to. Introducing new ingredients greatly reduces the likelihood your dog will have a negative reaction.

This is why limited ingredient diets for dogs and cats are becoming so popular. Limited ingredient diets take care of most of the work by simplifying things for you. These diets are typically grain-free, so you can easily eliminate those variables right away. Limited ingredient diets for pets also offer a wide range of protein sources to choose from; everything from your common poultry sources, to novel, unique proteins like venison, kangaroo, and rabbit. For dogs looking to eliminate all meats from their diet, there are some great options for vegetarian and vegan limited ingredient foods, too, such as Natural Balance Vegetarian Dog Food.

While a plant-based diet is perfectly suitable for dogs, it is not recommended for cats as they are obligate carnivores.

Limited ingredient diets for pets also have the benefit of including healthy sources of dietary fibre. This will help promote a healthy stomach and strong digestive system, and may help to clear up and gut health problems that your dog is experiencing.

The Most Common Food Allergies for Dogs

Pets are most at-risk to develop allergies and sensitivities to ingredients they have regular exposure to. While the ingredients each individual pet is exposed to is different, the most common allergy and sensitivity offenders include grains, like wheat, corn, and soy. Common proteins include beef, chicken, eggs, and dairy. However, if a dog has never been exposed to chicken before, that would be considered a hypoallergenic protein. It’s all about individual exposure. This is one of the reasons why demand for unique and novel proteins is on the rise. Pet owners are flocking to rabbit, venison, kangaroo, and even alligator in an effort to find hypoallergenic alternatives.

How Long Does It Take For A Dog’s Allergy Symptoms To Go Away?

Working your way through dietary allergies and sensitivities can take some time. It may take upwards of 8 weeks for a pet to respond favourably to a new hypoallergenic diet. The key here is patience and consistency. Once your pet is on a limited ingredient diet, and you have eliminated all common ingredients, your dog should begin to show gradual improvement. The first symptom to improve is usually ear problems. The ears will become less dirty, less smelly, and look less inflamed.

Once your pet appears to be responding favourably to their new hypoallergenic diet, and symptoms have greatly disappeared or been reduced, then you can begin to introduce old ingredients one at a time. By slowly reintroducing old ingredients, you can easily pinpoint which ones your pet is reacting to. Aim to introduce one new ingredient every 1 to 2 weeks. Simply discontinue any ingredient that causes an unwanted reaction. It is wise to make a list of all ingredients your pet has a negative reaction to.

When it comes to figuring out which ingredients to avoid, allergy testing is one option many pet owners turn to. Allergy tests can be up to 75% effective in identifying ingredients to avoid. However, several factors can result in inaccurate test results like exposure to antihistamines or steroids, even months prior to the allergy test itself. Because these test can cost hundreds of dollars, many pet owners find it cost prohibitive and instead turn to limited ingredient diets suitable for their pet’s individual needs.