Has your dog seemed particularly itchy recently? Have you noticed him chewing or licking his feet? Or scootching on the floor with full anal glands. Has he had gastrointestinal issues with diarrhea or vomiting? If you’ve seen these symptoms, your pup may be suffering from allergies or an intolerance to his diet. Several ingredients commonly used to make commercial dog food brands are known allergens and may be the root cause of the problem.
Two different issues can cause some of these symptoms in pets. Just as in people, a true allergy triggers a histamine response, and the immune system is involved in creating the resulting symptoms. True food allergies generally cause skin problems more than they cause digestive symptoms. Upon first exposure to the offending agent, dogs won’t show signs of allergy. They may eat the ingredient to which they become allergic for some time with no symptoms. Once the immune response is triggered, subsequent exposures will continue to cause symptoms.
If your dog has recurrent ear infections, facial itching, feet licking and chewing, and belly itching, suspect an allergy to a component in his food. The most common allergens in dog food are proteins from dairy, beef, chicken, chicken eggs, soy, or wheat gluten. Most regular pet foods contain at least one of these ingredients, and each time your dog ingests a substance to which he has become sensitized, the antibodies that react with specific allergens cause symptoms. The challenge is eliminating the allergen from your dog’s diet so he can heal.
At A Glance: Our Favorite Foods For Dogs With Allergies And Intolerances
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Allergy Or Intolerance?
Food allergies involve the immune system and are usually triggered by sensitization to a protein in the food. A food intolerance, on the other hand, is an abnormal response to an ingredient, but it does not involve the immune system. The problem, however, is that each presents some of the same symptoms. Food intolerances are more likely to cause vomiting or diarrhea, abdominal pain, flatulence, and loose stools, which can also be intestinal parasites (rule those out first). True allergies may have a GI component but manifest more generally, causing itchy, inflamed skin with scaly patches or even frequent ear infections. Although you can do an at-home allergy test or ask your vet to test your dog for sensitivity to specific allergens, the most efficient way to see if your dog is reacting to his diet is to feed him an elimination diet.
An elimination diet is precisely like it sounds. You eliminate all common allergens from your pet’s diet. It takes time for your pup’s body to heal, so count on feeding a special diet for a minimum of six to eight weeks. During this trial period, your dog can have only the prescribed diet. Any treat or supplement could potentially contain the allergen and may trigger a response. Consult your veterinarian for a specially formulated food to use during the trial. There are two types of food typically used in an elimination trial, a food with a completely novel source of protein the dog has never had before or a hydrolyzed protein food. The latter may require a prescription, although you can order the food online with your vet’s approval.
A food trial consists of feeding your dog a special allergen-free diet prescribed by your veterinarian. These foods contain proteins that have been hydrolyzed or broken down so small that the body doesn’t react to them. After eight to ten weeks, you’ll know if the food he was eating caused his GI and skin symptoms. If his itching and ear infections have disappeared, he is likely allergic to components in his previous food. Make a note of the ingredients in his old food, so you know what to avoid as you choose a diet that will keep your dog healthy and symptom-free.
Best Hydrolyzed Formulas
If you’re trying to see if either food allergies or food intolerances are causing your dog’s gastrointestinal or skin-related problems, your veterinarian may start you on a prescription diet that eliminates complex proteins. The proteins in meats or grains typically trigger the reactions, so logic dictates we begin at the probable cause. It will take time to see results in this diet, and the food is expensive. Do not offer any other treats during this trial period, or you won’t get an accurate picture of how to help your pup. If your dog’s symptoms subside within six to eight weeks, you know that it was likely an ingredient in his food (don’t forget that treats are food) causing his distress.
Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Hydrolyzed Protein
- Designed for adult dogs and puppies.
- Formulated with hydrolyzed proteins.
- Contains B vitamins and amino acids.
- Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
- Fiber helps support healthy digestion.
- Manufacturing avoids cross-contamination.
- 332 calories per cup.
- 19.5% Protein, 17.5% Fat, 3.1% Fiber.
Royal Canin has been producing high-end canine diets for over fifty years. They have an extensive line of prescription diets. This product has been specifically formulated for use during a short-term food elimination trial or as long-term nutrition for dogs with food sensitivities. This kibble is highly digestible, is made of hydrolyzed soy protein with low molecular weight peptides, and supports gastrointestinal and dermatological health. There’s no meat protein in the food, eliminating one of the most typical causes of allergy symptoms.
This hydrolyzed formula contains long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, to help promote healthy skin and coat. Fish oil, one of the ingredients, adds omega-3s to promote a healthy coat and reduce the inflammatory response. Because this formula does not contain meat, it has taurine in its ingredients list to counteract potential deficiencies.
We love that this food is so well-reviewed by people who have used it. Many reviews mention that this food was the first one they had tried that helped their dog. One of the most frequent symptoms that resolved shortly after switching to this food was loose or liquid stools. In their review, many reviewers mentioned quick resolution of skin allergy and ear infection symptoms.
Hill's Prescription Diet z/d Skin/Food Sensitivities
- Improves digestion with highly hydrolyzed protein.
- Formulated to support food sensitivities.
- z/d is clinically proven to help avoid food reactions.
- Reduces the risk of struvite and calcium oxalate crystals.
- Pea-free veterinary diet.
- 354 calories per cup.
- 19.1% Protein, 14.4% Fat, 4.4% Fiber.
Hill’s Science Diet has been ubiquitous in veterinary offices for years. The prescription diets offer targeted solutions to help with common health problems. The z/d formula helps improve your dog’s digestion and stool quality with highly hydrolyzed protein. The protein source is chicken liver, but hydrolyzation means the proteins have been broken down to the point they should no longer be reactive.
This diet helps eliminate food-related causes of skin irritation and results in a visible improvement of the skin and coat. The reviews specifically mentioned the resolution of itching skin and ear infections and a reduction in gastrointestinal upset.
This recipe has a hydrolyzed chicken liver protein base. This product might be the answer if a soy-based formula does not work for your pet. Reviews show most dogs find this product very palatable, so if you have a picky eater, this may be your first choice when presented with a food elimination trial.
Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets HA Hydrolyzed Vegetarian
- Contains a single high-quality protein and carbohydrate source.
- Highly digestible to promote optimal nutrient absorption.
- Vegetarian with simple proteins and low-allergen carbohydrates.
- Pea-Free, veterinary diet, chicken-free, hydrolyzed protein.
- 314 calories per cup.
- 18% Protein, 8% Fat, 4% Fiber.
Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets HA Hydrolyzed Vegetarian is the Hydrolyzed offering from another company that has been feeding animals for longer than most of us have been alive. This vegetarian formula has not only a single source of hydrolyzed protein but also a single carbohydrate source. The fats in this product are plant-based oils, so instead of the chicken fat (fat does not contain the allergens found in chicken meat) found in other brands, it contains coconut oil as one of the top three ingredients.
Coconut oil is currently trendy in human health foods because it naturally contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are more easily digestible than LCTs (long-chain triglycerides) which may be helpful in animals that cannot digest fats or have pancreatitis. Reviews for this product included many positive comments from consumers who specifically mentioned it seemed to improve the GI health of their dog with pancreatitis.
This product offers fat in the form of plant oils (coconut, canola, and corn) as an alternative to chicken fat. This may be the best first choice for dogs that cannot have regular fats in their diet. Although the evidence is mainly anecdotal, consult your vet to see if this should be your choice.
Best Limited Ingredient Formulas
If you try to move your pup back to a lower-cost non-prescription diet, you’ll become an expert at reading labels. You’ll want to start with food with limited ingredients that are generally considered low allergen. Limited ingredient foods are not hypoallergenic like hydrolyzed foods. They contain meat and, therefore, whole meat proteins. They help dogs with allergies and sensitivities by eliminating some of the most common allergens to make the right choice for your allergic dog easier to manage. Blue Buffalo Basics is a limited ingredient, grain-free dog food that doesn’t contain any chicken, beef, corn, wheat, soy, dairy, or eggs, which are common in manufactured pet foods and usually the proteins to which dogs are allergic.
Blue Buffalo Basics Skin & Stomach Care Grain-Free
- Single animal protein source.
- Potatoes, peas, and pumpkin support digestion.
- No chicken, beef, corn, wheat, soy, dairy, or eggs.
- Few ingredients and zero grains to avoid food sensitivities.
- 352 calories per cup.
- 20% Protein, 12% Fat, 6% Fiber.
Blue Buffalo Basics recipes start with real meat from a single animal protein source not often used in dog food, plus pumpkin and easily digested carbohydrates. Many dogs are sensitive to the proteins in chicken, so this formula contains no chicken or poultry by-product meals. Grains can be a source of sensitivities, so they have no corn, wheat, soy, artificial flavors, or preservatives.
We love that this formula offers a way to systematically test what proteins your dog can tolerate. Because they’ve carefully eliminated most known triggers, this may be enough to provide your dog relief. If you begin with a hydrolyzed diet and need to find something more affordable long-term, talk to your vet and see which limited ingredient formula they recommend first. Once you learn which meats or grains your dog cannot eat, these formulas give you an option to keep him healthy at a more manageable price point.
Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Grain-Free
- Single animal protein source.
- No grains, soy, gluten, artificial colors, or flavors.
- Contains healthy sweet potatoes and flaxseed.
- Several recipes appeal to all sensitive dogs.
- Grain-free recipe.
- 373 calories per cup.
- 24% Protein, 10% Fat, 4.5% Fiber.
Salmon is the first ingredient in this Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Grain-Free Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe Dry Dog Food. Salmon provides essential protein and amino acids to help maintain strong muscles, while sweet potato offers a grain-free source of fiber for digestive health.
Natural Balance is formulated with a simplified list of premium ingredients—a single animal protein source and no grains, soy, gluten, or artificial colors or flavors. This formula contains no corn, wheat, or soy. It is grain-free, pea-free, and free of chicken and chicken by-products. It contains fish and canola oils instead of chicken fat, and sweet potato is at the bottom of the Joneja scale of allergenicity.
Dog owners who reviewed this product mentioned improved shine to the hair coat and that this formula worked well for their dogs with chicken or corn allergies. Some dogs seem to be put off by the taste, but this formula is an alternative for dogs with chicken or grain allergies. It also avoids legume protein and has added taurine for heart health.
American Journey Limited Ingredient
- Single animal protein source and grain-free.
- Digestible carbs like peas and sweet potatoes.
- Ideal for food sensitivities.
- Contains omega-3 from flaxseed and omega-6 from sunflower oil.
- 325 calories per cup.
- 22% Protein, 12% Fat, 6% Fiber.
American Journey Limited Ingredient Lamb & Sweet Potato Recipe Grain-Free Dry Dog Food uses a single animal protein source and is also grain-free. Lamb is typically a low allergen protein source, and American Journey kibble is made with 22% protein and starts with deboned lamb (not lamb meal) as the first ingredient.
This formula contains no corn, wheat, soy, or poultry by-product meals, reducing the risk of allergen exposure. To reduce inflammation, it contains omega fatty acids to nurture your dog’s skin and coat, with omega-3 from flaxseed and omega-6 from sunflower oil.
Customer reviews for American Journey Limited Ingredient Lamb & Sweet Potato Recipe Grain-Free mention improved skin, less itchiness, and cleaner eyes and ears. A few reviewers mentioned increased stool volume but also good stool consistency.
Best Budget Formulas
Premium, purpose-designed food costs more than most store brand kibble. We always want the best for our pups, and the president of the American Pet Products Association announced that the pet food industry exceeded one hundred and three billion dollars this year. Sometimes, bumps in the road catch us, and our budget for dog food takes a hit. When prices go up, we’re left wondering how to meet our sensitive dog’s needs without breaking the bank. Depending on your dog’s specific needs, several brands offer formulas that offer relief to your pup and your pocketbook. If you know your dog’s specific allergen, check the label, and one of these products may work for you.
Diamond Naturals Lamb Meal & Rice
- No corn, wheat, artificial flavors, or colors.
- Lamb protein and moderate levels of fat.
- Omega fatty acids for skin and coat.
- Species-specific K9 strain proprietary probiotics
- Contains egg, chicken fat, and oatmeal.
Diamond Naturals Lamb Meal & Rice Formula Adult Dry Dog Food is crafted with lamb protein and moderate fat levels to give your dog the nutrients she needs to stay active. This recipe also contains omega fatty acids for skin and coat health and features vitamins and minerals from superfood fruits like blueberries and oranges.
This formula does not contain chicken meat but does include chicken fat. Fats do not contain proteins, so this should not trigger a dog with a chicken allergy. Each serving includes species-specific K9 strain proprietary probiotics, antioxidants, and prebiotics to help support healthy digestion, immune system health, and overall wellness.
We love that reviewers mention improved overall health after switching to this food, explicitly referring to a reduction in itching and skin problems. Several reviewers said the kibble size is small enough that all of the dogs in their families can easily eat it, even if they are small breeds. Many mentioned this product helped their dogs maintain a healthy weight, whether they had been underweight or overweight previously.
Rachael Ray Nutrish Limited Ingredient
- Real lamb meal is the #1 ingredient.
- Only 6 ingredients.
- No fillers, artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, corn, wheat, or soy.
- 325 calories per cup.
- 20% Protein, 13% Fat, 4% Fiber.
Rachael Ray Nutrish Limited Ingredient Lamb Meal & Brown Rice Recipe Dry Dog Food is crafted with six ingredients. It has added vitamins, minerals, taurine, and other nutrients. This canine kibble is free from corn, wheat, soy, and gluten, which can trigger allergies. There are zero artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.
This formula is gluten and pea free. Rachael Ray Nutrish Limited Ingredient Lamb Meal & Brown Rice Recipe contains glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate for joint health and adds pork flavoring to increase palatability. A typical blend of vitamins and minerals has been added to the basic six ingredients to address the nutritional needs of the average canine.
Reviews for this product tend to focus as much on palatability as quality. Some dogs love the formula, and some will not eat it. Many reviews mentioned reduced skin problems and ear infections, and several people said that fosters fed this to their dogs before adoption. People fostering dogs chose this formula because it was safe for dogs with sensitivities but affordable to purchase when feeding multiple dogs. As with any new food you try, buy a small bag first to see if your dog will eat it and watch for any skin or GI symptoms before reordering.
- Premium-quality lamb meal is the first ingredient.
- Ideal for dogs with allergies to other meat proteins.
- No corn, wheat, or soy.
- Contains rice, millet, grain sorghum, and chicken fat (caution for chicken allergies).
- 372 calories per cup.
- 24% Protein, 12% Fat, 4% Fiber.
Victor Select Lamb Meal & Brown Rice Dry Dog Food is sourced and made in the USA. This formula contains 71% meat protein from premium-quality lamb meal. It is also gluten-free and ideal for those dogs with allergies to other meat proteins (lamb is typically a low allergen food, although a dog may develop an allergy to any protein after exposure). Reviews for this product mentioned improved skin health and fewer ear infections, and several mentioned that loose stools improved when they switched to this product.
Victor brand has a proprietary blend called VPRO, which has four components. First, it includes selenium yeast to support essential metabolism, cellular regeneration, and good immune response. Next are mineral complexes to promote efficient metabolic function, a robust immune system, and skin, coat, and paw pad health. Third, VPRO contains prebiotics to aid in healthy digestion and efficient immune response, supporting growth, activity, and overall well-being. The final ingredient is probiotics rich in metabolites that feed good digestive bacteria to support healthy digestion and strong immunity.
The range of products available for us to feed our canine companions is broader than at any other time in history. For the sake of consistency, this article focuses on bagged commercially available kibble because of its easy shippability and storage. If your dog suffers from food sensitivities, you need to be able to get the right food for his special needs, even if it isn’t available locally. You don’t want to risk reintroducing the allergen.
Start simple as you embark on your dog’s journey to health and comfort. Flea bite dermatitis is the first variable to eliminate when your pup’s skin is red and itchy. After external parasites are eliminated as potential allergens, if symptoms don’t resolve, consult your vet about the possibility of food allergies. Remember, you will need to manage food allergies and sensitivities for the lifetime of your pet. If you find a formula he tolerates, he may eventually develop an allergy to the protein in the new food. Fortunately, you know what to consider as you select the next blend to help him heal.