Do You Have a Dog With Food Sensitivities

Do You Have a Dog With Food Sensitivities

If your best friend seems to always be itching or have an upset tummy, you are probably one of the many people these days that has a sensitive dog.

Whether they have allergies, certain food intolerances, environmental triggers or you can’t work out what causes them to flare up; rest assured you are very far from alone.

It seems these days that more dogs than not suffer from some form of sensitivity, sometimes having symptoms from when they are a pup and other times all of a sudden and seemingly out of nowhere. 

And this certainly isn’t just a case of overly zealous pet parents panicking at the first sign of a scratch, or purely a marketing opportunity for pet shops to sell allergy foods and medications (although there is surely some of this happening too).

The top two reasons dogs visit the vet are stomach issues (26%) and skin conditions (17%), making up nearly half of all vet visits, and the annual amount typically spent at the vet has been steadily increasing each year. 

Determining the culprit

Unfortunately, this commonality doesn’t mean allergies or sensitivities are getting easier to diagnose – they are notoriously difficult to pinpoint, and it can take months if not years to work out, leading many people to turn to medications and solutions that don’t address the underlying issue at hand. And that’s understandable – no one wants to see their pet in pain or discomfort.

This program is not a substitute for veterinary care, and we always recommend that you see your vet if you believe your dog is suffering in any way.

But if your dog frequently has symptoms like rashes, acne, itchy paws, gunky ears and eyes, an upset stomach or diarrhoea, scooting and anal gland issues, there are also things you can try at home to determine what may be causing them to react and flare up. 

If you already know what is causing your dog’s reactions, congratulations! That’s half the battle. In that case you’re probably here for recipes that help you navigate avoiding triggers and inflammatory foods, which is the aim of the game now. 

If you’re at a loss for working out why your dog is reacting, stay with us. 

Common causes

Broadly speaking, there are 3 main areas to consider: environmental allergies, food allergies, and food intolerances. However, it’s not uncommon for these to intersect and overlap, which of course makes everything far more complicated.

For example, you may know your dog has a mild sensitivity to grass that isn’t inherently debilitating on its own, but they then develop a food sensitivity related to eating heavily processed food.

Suddenly the rash they get occasionally from grass is ever present and wiping their paws after playing outside doesn’t seem to be working anymore, because these two sensitivities have joined forces to exacerbate the inflammation in your dog.

Now every time you feed your dog the food they’ve always eaten, you are unknowingly worsening their “grass allergy” and all the things you used to do to manage it aren’t working anymore.

In this situation, the food intolerance must also be identified and addressed in order to manage what appears to be the initial minor grass allergy worsening (but is actually being caused in part by a new food intolerance). 

Intolerance vs Allergy

There is also a difference between true food allergies and food intolerances. True food allergies are actually quite rare and tend to present as acute, sudden bouts of digestive upset or skin irritations, such as hives, quickly after eating the allergen in any quantity.

Food intolerances, on the other hand, can take many months or even years to develop, and may manifest in more gradual and chronic symptoms, such as persistent itching or digestive upset that isn’t easily identified as being directly tied to a certain trigger. 

The only solution to a true food allergy is to carefully avoid this food forever, in any capacity.

Food intolerances are a little more nuanced and may present as a result of persistent inflammation from multiple triggers, or from long term, repeated exposure to inflammatory foods, such as the heavily processed starches in dry dog food.

This can be particularly challenging to work out if your dog has always eaten a certain food with no issues, because we typically would consider this a “safe” food after extended feeding.

In fact, sometimes this repeated and persistent exposure can be the very thing that sets off a food intolerance, particularly if the food in question is not very good quality and high in inflammatory ingredients, like the proteins found in soy and wheat. 

How diet plays a role

Diet is not the only factor in dogs developing sensitivities, but it certainly can play a big role and many pet owners and fresh food supportive vets have found an unprocessed diet to be useful in remedying inflammatory reactions.

This can be due to a perfect storm of factors, but, significantly, repeated exposure to denatured ingredients like those in heavily processed foods places stress on the digestive system and can lead to gut dysbiosis or an imbalance between the good and bad gut bacteria, making your pet more susceptible to illness.

Gut dysbiosis can impact the immune system in a multitude of ways due to the fact that as much as 80% of the immune system cells are thought to reside in the gut. This can make them vulnerable to not only food-related allergy symptoms, but also environmental ones like pollen that may not have previously been a problem.

Over time this food can actually damage the lining of the gut, resulting in a condition called gastrointestinal hyper-permeability or, colloquially, leaky gut syndrome.

This is when the very small holes in the mucosal lining of the gut that are intended to allow nutrients and water to pass through into the bloodstream become more permeable and start allowing undigested food particles and bacteria to pass through into the bloodstream as well. 

This can be attributed to the combination of synthetic ingredients, preservatives and chemicals in processed foods that erode the lining of the gut, along with high amounts of starches that break down into simple sugars and feed yeast and bad bacteria, compounding this erosion.

Once this happens and particles that aren’t supposed to enter the blood end up there, the immune system reacts to these perceived threats and becomes overstimulated, making your dog more susceptible to things like skin irritation, digestive upset, ear infections or even more serious conditions like an autoimmune disease or arthritis. 

Because this occurs gradually over time, it’s not as easy to pinpoint the specific food that is contributing to the inflammation – and in fact it may not be one specific food.

However, if your dog has been eating a chicken food (for example), and has developed a leaky gut, it’s quite possible that chicken proteins have entered their bloodstream and caused an immune response.

Their body will now recognise chicken protein as a threat and, even though it wasn’t specifically chicken that caused the problem, it is now an established trigger for a reaction.

The high prevalence of chicken and beef in processed pet foods goes some way to explaining the high rate of “allergies” to these proteins that are otherwise not particularly problematic, and in fact are very nutritious. 

Unfortunately, what can happen is that well-meaning pet owners will switch to a different variety of processed pet food to tackle this new chicken intolerance, without actually resolving the underlying problem.

This may work for a while as the new protein (eg. lamb) is not recognised by the body as an allergen. But over time this process repeats, and lamb protein molecules may enter the bloodstream, meaning that a few months on suddenly your dog can’t tolerate their new food either.

After several cycles of this incredibly frustrating problem, both dog and fur-parent are at their wits end and turn to pharmaceutical intervention in the form of steroids or antibiotics for some immediate relief.

And while it may provide this in the short term, in the long term these medications further irritate the lining of the sensitive gut and eventually they may stop working too, or other issues may begin to present.  

It is the very definition of a vicious cycle and heartbreakingly frustrating for people who just want their beloved dog to get better. 

What to do?

If this sounds familiar, the first thing to do is rule out environmental triggers. While food intolerances are quickly blamed for any allergy-type symptoms, in reality most of these reactions are caused by things like pollen, plants, household cleaning products and fleas.

First ruling these out may save you a lot of time and grief. 

If this proves unsuccessful and you suspect you are dealing with a food intolerance, there are two approaches to take; the first is to eliminate the allergen from the diet entirely, and the other is to work on repairing the damage done to heal your dog and prevent future occurrences.

Fortunately, these can often be done together if you take a whole foods approach. 

Elimination Diets

Typically, the best way to remove the allergen is to implement an elimination diet. Allergy-type reactions are almost always caused by proteins, so we must remove any proteins from the diet that may have previously triggered a reaction.

This is not just a case of eliminating the protein you suspect is triggering the reaction, but to remove ALL proteins but for a single source, and ideally one that your dog has never eaten before.

This is known as a novel protein, and it is the reason we are seeing so many “novel protein diet” foods appearing in pet stores. But a novel protein diet is not necessary unless you are actually conducting an elimination, and it’s not effective unless done properly.

If executed poorly or unnecessarily it may even result in more intolerances. 

To properly conduct an elimination diet, you must feed your dog a single protein for a period of 8-12 weeks, including all treats. This can be particularly challenging if you have young children or multiple dogs, but it is the most effective way to determine the source of the problem. 

We have included a single protein turkey recipe in this program, which is very limited ingredient and suitable for an elimination diet if your dog has not previously eaten or reacted to turkey.

This can be used in conjunction with our freeze-dried turkey treats for a complete, whole food diet. If your dog cannot eat turkey, there is also a kangaroo recipe that is suitable, but you will need to source kangaroo only treats to go with this.

If these are not suitable you could try the fish only recipe, however this does have multiple types of fish and seafood in it, so there is a chance your dog may react to one of these if they have been exposed to it before. If all of the ingredients are new, this one is worth a try too. 

Once you have completed the elimination period of feeding only one recipe and your dog is tolerating their single protein diet, it is time to introduce the suspected allergen food.

Start with a very small amount and monitor for any symptoms. If a reaction presents with just a small amount of the food reintroduced, you have identified the culprit and can again eliminate this food permanently.

Unfortunately, you now need to begin the trial again in order to test the waters with other foods, to work out if there are other triggers or “safe” foods. If you introduce a food and experience no reaction, wait a week or two and keep going slowly with other foods until you have a well-rounded diet and can begin using some of the more varied recipes. 

If you complete the elimination period and then introduce your suspected allergen without any reaction, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you were wrong.

Sometimes, in the case of food intolerances (as opposed to allergies), the elimination period is sufficient to repair the inflammation and permit this food that was once causing an immune response to be reintroduced in its whole food form.

We recommend doing this very gradually and building up their tolerance, but always feed only moderate amounts of this protein to err on the side of caution and prevent flare ups. 

Often heavily processed foods like hydrolysed-protein kibble or wet food are recommended for elimination diets.

While these may work, it is because they are so incredibly processed that the body cannot actually identify the proteins in them.

They also do nothing to heal the inflammation underlying the problem because they’re still brimming with synthetic ingredients and processed starches.

These foods are often not actually used as an elimination diet but rather as a permanent solution, which is far from ideal nutritionally speaking and really more of a band aid that treats the symptoms, rather than a proper resolution that heals your dog.  

What if an elimination diet doesn’t work?

If an elimination diet doesn’t work or you’re unable to determine what food is causing the reaction (or if everything seems to cause a reaction!), the next step is to contact an allergy specialist.

They will assist you to get the symptoms under control and may do allergy testing to determine the source of the issues you’re experiencing. 

Supporting your sensitive dog

Sometimes dogs don’t actually have specific intolerances or triggers but are just generally sensitive creatures.

This may be due to their breed – French bulldogs are notoriously sensitive, for example – or genetic predisposition.

It could be due to the food they were weaned onto and the health of their mother – much of the gut microbiome is either inherited or developed when puppies are very young, so this can have long term influence on their health. And some of it is probably just luck.

If your dog falls into the “generally sensitive” category, a whole foods diet and focus on preventative wellness can go great lengths to managing recurrent symptoms and bouts of illness.

At Healthy Active Pet, our team of pet nutritionists have created a sensitive dog program that is 100% designed for dogs with sensitive tums! You can check it out here

This program isn’t a replacement for regular veterinary care by any means, and we always encourage you to have regular check-ups and seek treatment whenever required.

But we also believe there is great value in focusing on staying well, rather than waiting for symptoms to emerge and then treat.

Through a combination of adopting a whole foods approach to nutrition, focusing attention on the health of the gut, making efforts to support the immune system, and staying mentally engaged and physically active, we promote good health and can often make great progress towards reducing the presentation of preventable illnesses and discomfort in our animals.

Check the sensitive program and recipes here


Benefits of fresh foods

The reality is most of us still feed our dogs a “traditional” diet of heavily processed food, often based upon the recommendation of our care providers.

It’s a strange situation to find ourselves in and it goes against everything we’re told about how to support our own health and nutrition.

What's in commercial pet food?

Have you ever picked up a bag of dog or cat food and seen "Meat by-products and meat (poultry, beef &/or sheep)” or words to that effect? What does that even mean?

Chances are it means the manufacturer doesn’t actually know which one is in their food which can mean it is very hard to buy for a dog with food allergies (And this is one of the driving reasons we created our freeze dried and air dried range to be free from chicken and beef and to say EXACTLY what is in it!)

Heavily processed pet food like kibbles and tinned dog and cat products are almost always made from meat that has either been rendered to a shelf stable powder, or otherwise processed to a meat “slurry” that is then sterilised.

Rendering is a process favoured by the fertiliser industry, whereby meat and bones that are not fit for human consumption are crushed and then heated to very high temperatures until the water and fat separate.

The remaining “meat” is dried to a long life powder that contains mostly protein and bone, and then turned into garden fertiliser, dry dog food and livestock feed.

Some tinned pet foods also use these meat meals, while others grind whole meat and meat by-products (which may include heads, hooves, offal and basically any part of the animal that is otherwise discarded), and then add cereals and other binding ingredients to form the chunks in a tin that we might mistake for actual pieces of meat.

These ingredients are then cooked so the starches gelatinise and proteins begin to denature, before being tinned and sterilised using temperatures over 120 degrees Celsius for several minutes.

These products are basically always synthesised with vitamin and mineral supplements, because very little nutrition survives these heat intensive processes.

Because these meats are pretty much always not of a quality fit for human consumption, prior to being turned into pet food they are regulated by a different set of rules to food intended for the human supply chain.

These rules don’t require that meat be properly labelled as “beef” or “sheep,” which is why pet food manufacturers don’t always seem to know which one is in their food.

There are of course brands that do name their meats, and we can only give them the benefit of the doubt that this is because their sourcing ensures these claims are accurate, but the intensive processing methods remain the same, meaning that nutritionally there is very little difference between them by that point anyway.

Another thing you will see in pretty much all processed pet foods is high levels of carbohydrate ingredients. These may be mysterious “cereals” in cheaper brands (usually wheat, corn, soy or some combination of all three), or things like brown rice, peas, lentils, chickpeas, tapioca, potato, sorghum and beet pulp in the higher end brands.

These may sound ok, probably because we know these whole foods are nutritious additions to our own diet. But dogs and cats have no nutritional need for carbohydrates, and these are not actually present in their whole food form like the pretty pictures on the label might suggest; they are ground down to highly refined starchy powders that act as fillers and binders, without which these product would not hold together.

They also often appear spread across multiple different ingredients (a practice known as ingredient splitting), which serves to conceal that many processed dog and cat foods are upwards of 50% carbohydrates.

For animals that don’t need any carbs in their diet, that’s a whole lot of carbs!

You can see our FAQ's on raw feeding here 

The best way to avoid these mystery meats and processed cereals is to feed your four-legged friend a whole food diet, either in the form of homemade food using the same nutritious ingredients you would eat yourself,(you can see our pet nutritionist created meal plans and recipes here) or a reputable pre-made food that has been minimally processed and is clearly labelled with everything it contains (you can see our raw air and freeze dry foods here which are free from chicken & beef)

Raw dog food

Or you can get full access to our sensitive meal plan programs and raw food recipes here 


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