Should You Try a Dog Elimination Diet?
The main reason: Food allergies and food sensitivities.
When a dog eats an ingredient that provokes allergic reactions, the immune system perceives that ingredient as an invader, launching an attack against it. This can have far-reaching consequences, including over-activating the immune system which then creates other issues. Food sensitivities and intolerances, on the other hand, don’t provoke an immune system response but have similar symptoms.
Symptoms of a food allergy or sensitivity in dogs can include:
- Itchy skin/persistent bacterial skin infections (non-seasonal)
- Persistent hot spots (also known as pyoderma)
- Recurring ear infections
- Hair loss
- Gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea
- Persistent licking of the feet and legs
- Excessive flatulence
Work with Your Vet to Identify a Food Allergy or Sensitivity
Unfortunately, many owners jump to the conclusion that itchy skin or frequent ear infections are a result of a food allergy in their dog when, in fact, it may be a sign of something else that needs veterinary care.
For example, other conditions that can cause persistent problems with the skin, fur, ears, and digestive issues include a compromised immune system, environmental allergens (such as dust mites, fleas, or pollen), bacterial skin infections, and other conditions.
A recent report from the American Veterinary Medical Association reports that environmental allergies have had a sharp increase in our pets in recent years, up 30.7% in dogs in the last decade. It is important to take your dog to the vet for a full diagnosis rather than assuming that the issue is caused by diet. In addition, it is thought that only about 10% of allergies in dogs are the result of food.
What is an Elimination Diet Trial for Dogs?
If your dog is showing symptoms of a food allergy or sensitivity, then a vet visit is in order. As part of the consultation, your vet may recommend specific allergy tests to try to help diagnose the allergen and associate it with specific food sources. However, these tests are somewhat limited since the potential list of offenders is so massive, especially if you include the many potential environmental factors (including ingredients in common household cleaners, for example).
Thus, once other underlying factors have been ruled out, your vet may encourage you to try a dog food allergy elimination diet to find out if you can identify food intolerances that your dog may be reacting to. This involves setting up a diet based on reducing the ingredient your dog eats, then adding back in ingredients one at a time to identify which ingredient is the culprit.
The most common offenders for dogs, in order of prevalence, include:
Let’s look at some of the commercial diet options commonly used in food elimination diets for dogs:
Grain-Free Dog Food
You may have noticed a big uptick in the number of “grain-free” pet food options these days. Following some trends in human health (the gluten free wave), there are many that believe that certain grains such as corn or wheat are trigger foods, prompting an inflammatory response in the body.
Many pet owners have found that simply switching to grain-free food for their canine companions resolves the issues they are having within a few weeks. Because it is readily available and relatively easy to try, this is not a bad starting point. However, for many dogs, it will not be restrictive enough for a true dog elimination diet.
Limited Ingredient Dog Food
Limited ingredient diets for dogs offer many more restrictions in terms of ingredients. Usually, they have between 3-6 ingredients, allowing you to start a dog elimination diet while having strict control over what your dog is consuming. However, if you use a chicken-based formula, and your dog is allergic to chicken (or chicken and beef) for example, their condition is not going to improve.
Novel Protein Dog Food
If you have the budget, a novel protein food (particularly if it is also a limited ingredient) is one way to avoid the most common protein allergens. If, in fact, your dog is allergic to beef, chicken, and lamb…then going with venison or kangaroo-based novel protein source may show improvement and form a solid basis upon which to build your allergy elimination diet for dogs.
Hydrolyzed Protein or Hypoallergenic Dog Food
If your vet suspects that your dog is having trouble digesting a single protein due to a food allergy or other condition, they may recommend you use hydrolyzed protein food for the first stage of your trial. This specially formulated food uses chemical processes to do the first round of breaking down complex proteins so they are more digestible and less likely to trigger an allergic response.
The major downside of these diets is that they are often extremely expensive. Some owners opt for other ways to try to eliminate the allergen as a result.
Home Cooked Dog Diet
Some dog owners find that a home-cooked diet is the best way to control the ingredients in their dog food. It is absolutely imperative to research essential dog nutrition to use a home-cooked diet responsibly. Like people, dogs require certain levels of nutrients from meat and plant-based foods to have complete nutritional health.
How to Do an Elimination Diet for Dogs
Step 1: Start a Daily Journal
Your daily journal will be used throughout the trial and you should start it before you actually make the switch. Note down symptoms, frequencies, intensities, period of time, or any patterns you notice. This will give you something to compare to during your trial.
Since your dog may have contact allergies that are as yet undiagnosed, also use the journal to track things that your dog is exposed to. You may gather valuable information to help in your search to identify a contact allergy such as certain soaps, scents from the fabric softener, cologne, cleaning products, etc.
Step 2: Start the Restricted Diet
Over the course of 3 days, gradually switch from your dog’s current food to the food group you have chosen for the dog food allergy elimination trial. This helps to avoid gastrointestinal issues that can be caused by a rapid change in diet.
It is critical to also avoid treating with any treats during this time as this defeats the purpose of eliminating any chance for an offending ingredient to get into your dog’s system. If you currently give oral heartworm or flea and tick preventative, talk to your vet about an appropriate alternative as the ingredients in chewable formulas may well contain the offensive ingredient.
How long does it take to get food out of a dog’s system?
Observe your dog for at least 2 weeks on the new diet. If symptoms begin to improve, then this is a good basis for your food elimination diet for dogs. If they don’t, then identify all of the ingredients and find another food source that does not contain any of them, and try again. Once you have a symptom-free dog for at least 4 weeks, then you are ready to start adding other ingredients to test for a reaction.
Step 3: Add in Other Ingredients
Once you have a good base formula that has completely resolved the symptoms, then you have a good idea that a food allergy or sensitivity is the root cause of the problems. Now it is time to figure out what ingredient is the offender.
For example, now you can add some cooked ground beef to your dog’s meal each day. If after a week there is no reaction, then they are not likely allergic to beef. Next try adding other ingredients, one at a time, reintroducing foods one at a time. Again, give it at least a week to see if symptoms occur, and keep very careful notes.
Once you have identified the ingredients that are causing your dog’s issues, then you have more options to choose from on the grocery store shelves and you can try those diets that avoid the offending product in both treats and food.
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