Food Allergy in Dogs

Overview of Canine Food Allergy

Food allergy is an uncommon problem in dogs and it can start at any age. A change in diet is not necessary for development of food allergy. About 70 percent of affected pets develop allergies to food ingredients that they have been fed for a long time, usually more than two years. In fact, if your dog has an immediate adverse reaction to a new food, it is probably not an allergic reaction, because it takes more than one exposure to produce an allergic reaction.

Food ingredients most commonly responsible for allergies are beef, chicken, fish, eggs and milk. The tendency to develop allergies is genetically determined. Dogs with other allergies like inhalant allergies or atopy may be at increased risk for developing a food allergy.

The clinical symptoms of food allergy resemble those of other types of allergies. These two disorders may have the same clinical symptoms and the same distribution of itchiness or pruritus over the dog’s body. In some cases, it is impossible to differentiate between inhalant allergy and food allergy by clinical appearance alone.

Food allergy should be ruled out first because it is the easier of the two disorders to control by eliminating the offending food ingredient from the dog’s diet. Food allergy is ruled out by feeding a diet consisting solely of food ingredients to which the animal has not been previously exposed – an elimination food trial. This trial should be performed before considering expensive tests for other types of allergies.

What to Watch For

Diagnosis of Food Allergies in Dogs

Diagnostic tests are needed to recognize food allergy and exclude other diseases that may cause similar symptoms. Tests may include:

Treatment of Food Allergies in Dogs

Treatment for food allergy may include one or more of the following:

Home Care

New food allergies can develop over time. If your dog was diagnosed previously with food allergy and has been well controlled with a special diet but once again is showing signs of allergic skin disease, he may have developed a new allergy. Under these circumstances, consult your veterinarian to determine whether a new allergy has developed or whether another disease is present.

Another elimination food trial may be necessary to make this distinction. Patience and determination are important for the success of an elimination food trial. You and your family must be strict and be certain that no one “breaks” the food trial by giving the dog treats or table scraps. Strict compliance with the trial is essential for proper interpretation of the results. This means no treats like milk bones, rawhide bones or pig ears, no flavored medications (Heartgard Plus), and no flavored vitamins during the trial.

Preventative Care

A genetic predisposition seems to exist for food allergy. Based on their genetic constitution, some animals seem to be predisposed to development of food allergy. However, since the cause of food allergy is unknown, the disorder cannot be prevented.

In-depth Information on Food Allergies in Dogs

The term food allergy often is used to describe any adverse reaction to foods. Some reactions are mediated by the immune system (true allergy) whereas others are not (food intolerance). Food intolerance and true allergy cannot be reliably differentiated on a clinical basis, and this difficulty explains why a variety of clinical signs are attributed to what has broadly been called food allergy.

Barriers in the gastrointestinal tract prevent adverse responses to ingested food in most individuals. These barriers include both physiologic and immunologic protective mechanisms. Abnormalities in the gastrointestinal defense mechanisms (mucosal barrier failure with increased antigen absorption, defective immunoregulation) may predispose your dog to the development of food allergies. Which of these mechanisms is important in the pathogenesis of food allergies in dogs presently is unknown.

The pathogenesis of food allergy in dogs has not been established. Type I hypersensitivity (mediated by a type of antibody called immunoglobulin E or IgE) may be involved. In this type of hypersensitivity reaction, mast cells in the intestinal tract degranulate and release inflammatory mediators.

Foods contain many proteins that can act as allergens. Allergenic foods tend to have high protein content. Complex proteins contain many sites that may act as antigens and thus are more likely to stimulate the immune system than are smaller proteins. Offending proteins must be large enough to link two IgE antibodies and trigger mast cell degranulation.

The foods most commonly incriminated as allergens in dogs are beef, dairy products and wheat and account for 66 percent of suspected cases of food allergy. Chicken, lamb, soy, eggs, pork, and preservatives account for only 22 percent of reported cases according to a recent survey of veterinarians in North America.

Reactions to food additives frequently are suspected, but little objective information supports this perception. Additional studies are needed to confirm the role of food additives in adverse reactions in dogs.

Clinical Signs of Food Allergy in Dogs

Muzzle, paws, armpits, groin, rump and ears are commonly affected areas of the body.

Other disorders can mimic food allergy in dogs. These include atopy, scabies (sarcoptic mange), flea hypersensitivity, bacterial folliculitis (inflammation of the hair follicles), seborrhea, and Malassezia dermatitis (yeast infection).

Secondary infections should be identified and treated appropriately. Skin scrapings or ear swabs should be examined under the microscope to investigate the possibility of Malassezia dermatitis as a contributing factor for pruritus or itchiness. The diagnosis of superficial pyoderma is based on the presence of papules, which are small raised red lesions; pustules; epidermal collarettes, also known as bull’s-eye lesions; and evidence of bacteria inside inflammatory cells on microscopic examination. All affected dogs should have skin scrapings performed to rule out the possibility of demodectic mange.

Diagnosis In-Depth of Food Allergy in Dogs

The Food Trial for Food Allergy in Dogs

An ideal food trial consists of feeding a small number of highly digestible proteins to which the animal has not been previously exposed. Only a novel source of protein should be used for the food trial, and it is best to use only one source of protein. Cross-reactivity among foods is poorly documented in animals, and it is not known if hypersensitivity to foods closely related to one another like chicken and turkey occurs.

Food trials can be carried out using homemade or commercially prepared diets. No diet is inherently hypoallergenic, and this fact is important to remember when conducting a food trial. Food allergy may develop with any food if it is fed long enough.

A homemade diet is preferred, but commercial diets are commonly used due to the inconvenience of preparing homemade diets for the duration of the food trial. Client education is important, and the success of the food trial depends on the choice of diet and the compliance of the pet owner. If a homemade food trial is attempted, it is important to feed a nutritionally balanced diet, especially to young dogs. Non-flavored vitamins and supplements should be added.

If commercial diets are chosen, it is important to remember that they often contain a large number of ingredients in addition to those advertised on the label. Chewable medications and flavored toys also should be discontinued during the food trial. Non-chewable and non-flavored tablets should be used for heartworm prevention.

The food trial should be continued for 2 months. Pruritus and recurrence of skin infections are monitored during the trial. A tentative diagnosis of food allergy is made if marked improvement in clinical signs occurs during the trial. However, challenge is necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Challenge with individual ingredients is preferable in order to identify the specific offending food. Worsening of clinical signs may take several hours or up to 7 to 10 days to occur.

The elimination diet is used as the basic diet and the dog should be challenged with one ingredient at a time for two weeks. If no worsening occurs, challenge with the next ingredient on the list should be done until all ingredients in the original diet have been evaluated. If clinical signs recur, the offending ingredient should be discontinued and the animal fed only the elimination diet until symptoms disappear. When symptoms resolve, challenge with the next ingredient may be carried out.

Elimination trials are complicated by the fact that many affected animals have other hypersensitivities, in addition to food allergy. Such patients respond only partially to a food trial. For this reason, it is important to control flea exposure, consider the possibility of concurrent inhalant allergies (atopy), and challenge patients with isolated food ingredients at the end of the trial.

Commercial diets commonly used for food trials include:

Treatment In-depth of Food Allergy in Dogs

Avoidance is the best therapy. About 80 percent of food allergic patients can be managed with commercial diets. A small percentage of food allergic animals, however, may require homemade diets and in those animals it is important to insure that the diet is balanced and nutritionally adequate. When avoidance is not feasible, cortisone-like drugs (corticosteroids) may be used. Some food allergic animals, however, respond poorly to corticosteroids and, as a general rule, the efficacy of this type of therapy tends to decrease over time.

Although rare, new food allergies can develop over time. These animals require re-evaluation with new elimination diets. Response to antihistamines and fatty acid supplements usually is limited. Hyposensitization or allergy shots is not an effective form of treatment for food allergy.

A newer therapy called Oclacitinib (Apoquel) has been very effective in control of itching in dogs with allergies. This drug uniquely targets cytokines that are involved in the itch process. Onset of relief can be as early as 4 hours and controls the itch within 24 hours. Many veterinarians like this drug because it controls itching without the side effects of steroids.