If there was ever a situation where it would be uber convenient if we could communicate with our dogs, it would be when we’re trying to figure out why they don’t feel well and what’s causing their symptoms. You know… something like this:

Me: “Hey, li’l dude, do you think it’s your dog food giving you those bodacious toots and upset stomach, or did you sneak something out of the garbage again?”

Dog: “Nah, I found another one of those magical hidden bush bagels outside again when you weren’t looking. It was delicious!”

Me: “You CANNOT eat the bush bagels! We’ve gone over this!”

If only the world were that simple. Unfortunately, until we have the technology to have these hallucinatory conversations with our dogs in real life, it comes down to playing detective when we notice our pups might be having a reaction to their food and its ingredients (or other things they shouldn’t be eating!).

woman and dog

Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance—What’s the Difference?

The simplest way to understand the difference between an actual food allergy vs. a food intolerance is that a food allergy triggers a response in your dog’s immune system. Their body sees a certain ingredient as an intruder and decides to attack, resulting in a miserable pup and bamboozled pet parent. A food intolerance is a little bit different because it doesn’t actually involve your dog’s immune system, but it may still cause abrupt chaos in their li’l bodies. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to tell an actual food allergy from an intolerance because many symptoms overlap.

Symptoms of Food Allergies or Intolerances:

  • Itching/scratching
  • Licking
  • Hives
  • Hair loss
  • Hot spots
  • Eye discharge and redness
  • Paw and ear infections (inflammation can cause an overgrowth of bacteria in these areas)
  • Swelling of face/lips/ears/eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea/Constipation/Upset stomach
  • Flatulence (not the kind that actually came from you when you blamed your dog)
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of energy
  • Very rarely, anaphylaxis

If your dog is showing any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your veterinarian first. They’ll want to rule out other health problems, possible environmental allergies, or diseases that may cause similar symptoms before focusing on the possibility of a food allergy or intolerance.

dog with nurse's hat and stethoscope

Most Common Food Ingredient Triggers

The proteins (beef, chicken, eggs, etc.) in dog foods are usually the culprits when it comes to all the food frustrations. Here’s a list of the most triggering food ingredients:

  1. Beef
  2. Dairy (Usually due to the naturally-occurring sugar, lactose.)
  3. Chicken
  4. Wheat (Contrary to popular belief, wheat is much lower on the list of problem-causing foods, though the gluten can sometimes be an issue.)
  5. Eggs
  6. Soy

IMPORTANT NOTE: Feeding your dog a single type of food protein over several years may actually increase the potential for them to develop a reaction to that protein. Beef and chicken are noted as two of the most problem causing proteins because they’re used the most in dog foods; lamb, pork, and fish are seen less often as problem proteins.

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How To Figure Out What Your Dog Is Allergic To

Although there are allergy tests for dogs in existence, they tend to be inaccurate, so most veterinarians don’t always find them helpful. The most reliable method for narrowing down your dog’s food allergy and sniffing out the trouble-making ingredient is by channeling your inner Sherlock Holmes—become your pup’s own food detective by going through a food elimination trial period.

Your veterinarian will usually suggest a food elimination trial by removing the food you think may be causing the issue and suggesting a substitute diet your dog has never been exposed to for at least 8 weeks. This usually includes a single protein along with a single carbohydrate (potatoes, peas, etc). Some of these rare diet suggestions will include proteins like:

  • Venison
  • Fish
  • Rabbit
  • Elk
  • Lamb
  • Alligator (good luck finding this one!)

This trial period is strict, meaning no treats, no supplements, and definitely no sneaking food scraps under the table from anyone in the household. Once the 8-week trial is complete, you will reintroduce your dog’s original food. If the symptoms return, it most likely means there’s an allergy to the eliminated ingredient.

Food Allergy Treatments

Once you and your vet have concluded that there’s a food allergy or intolerance, a simple diet change may be all that’s needed. Topical creams, ointments, antibiotics, probiotics, antihistamines, steroids, or other medications may be suggested to help your pup’s symptoms while you’re in the process of narrowing down the problem.

If an issue still keeps popping up, your vet may suggest a limited ingredient diet or a hydrolyzed protein diet (that’s just a fancy pants word that means the protein in the food is broken down on a molecular level that can no longer cause an immune reaction).

dog eating food out of multiple bowls

Dog Breeds Most Susceptible To Allergies

Some breeds are thought to be hereditarily predisposed to developing allergies at some point in their lifetime, but any dog breed can develop an allergy to food. Breeds that are considered to be genetically prone to allergies include:

  • Dachshund
  • Golden retriever
  • Bulldog
  • German shepherd
  • Pug
  • American Staffordshire terrier
  • Cocker spaniel
  • Shih Tzu
  • West Highland terrier
  • Yorkshire terrier
  • Shar-Pei


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