We wish there was a single food that could help all dogs with allergies. Unfortunately, allergies are not that straightforward. They're an idiosyncratic condition that affects each dog differently — and each dog has different triggers. Because of this, there's no single best dog food for allergies.
If your dog has food allergies, a carefully chosen limited ingredient diet can be a short-term solution to help you diagnose their food triggers. However, food allergies are much less common than environmental allergies in dogs.
According to research by Banfield Pet Hospital, just 0.2% of dogs or two in every 1,000 are affected by food allergies. Environmental allergens affect 3.6% of dogs, or about seven in every 200. But even though dog food allergies are rare, they're much easier to control than environmental allergens, so it's worth testing your dog for these allergies.
We'll give you a step-by-step guide to choosing the best dog food for allergies based on your pet's needs. Then, we'll cover how to introduce this food to your dog, run a food allergen test, and get your dog back on a well-rounded diet once you've identified their food triggers.
We'll also cover what to do if your dog is suffering from environmental allergens, including tips to help support their immune system and ease their symptoms with healthy foods and holistic ingredients.
The Best Dog Food for Allergies When You're Diagnosing Food Allergens
First, let's make one thing clear: There's no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog food. Dogs can technically be allergic to any ingredient, so pet food manufacturers aren't allowed to claim their product is hypoallergenic.
But, some food intolerances are more common than others, so dog food brands have created limited ingredient diet (LID) dog foods, which should be (but aren't always) free of the most common allergens.
All LID diets contain only a small number of ingredients, so they essentially act as an elimination diet for your dog. By limiting the number of ingredients your dog is eating, you can more easily identify what's triggering their allergy symptoms (if their symptoms are caused by food at all).
But to effectively use an LID diet to test for food sensitivities, you need to choose the right formula, which will look different for every dog. Here's how to choose.
How to Choose a Limited Ingredient Dog Food
First, look at the ingredients label on the side of your dog's current food or foods. Make a list of everything that's included.
Avoid Ingredients in Your Dog's Current Food
You only need to list the food-based ingredients. Nearly every pet food formula will also include added vitamins and minerals in the ingredient deck. These are required to meet AFFCO's nutrition standards for complete-and-balanced dog food.
LID diets will include these same added vitamins and minerals. And when an LID dog food says something like, "Made with just six ingredients," they're only referring to the food-based ingredients, not the added vitamin pack, which will typically push the number of ingredients closer to 40.
Once you know the food-based ingredients in your dog's current food, look for an LID dog food that doesn't contain any of those ingredients — or contains as few as possible. Choose a high-quality LID dog food made from a single protein source and a single carbohydrate source.
Pick Your Protein Source
Contrary to what the marketing around grain-free diets would have you believe, the most common dog food allergens are proteins — not grains. Wheat is the only grain that ranks high on the list. Beef, dairy, and chicken are the most common allergens, so avoid LID recipes made with these proteins. Look for novel proteins, like venison meal, lamb meal, or fish meal as the first ingredient.
Check the Carbohydrate Source
Most LID dog foods are gluten-free, but check the carbohydrate source to make sure. Brown rice, oats, sweet potatoes, and tapioca are all healthy, high-fiber carbohydrates that are unlikely to produce an allergic reaction.
Pay Attention to the Fats in the Formula
In addition to an animal protein and a carbohydrate, LID formulas will include a healthy source of fats. Coconut oil and flax seeds are common options that are rich in omega-6 fatty acids. Avoid formulas that include chicken fat. Although most dogs who are allergic to chicken meal can safely eat chicken fat, for the initial testing period, it's best to proceed with an abundance of caution.
Find a High-Quality Formula
Make sure the formula you choose is made with high-quality ingredients — you should see easy-to-pronounce whole foods listed in the ingredient deck. Avoid recipes that contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, additives, preservatives, fillers, meat by-products, and GMO ingredients.
And choose a recipe that's appropriate for your dog's life stage. If your dog is under one year old (or under two years for large breed dogs) ensure that the recipe you choose is formulated for puppies or all-life stages, not just for adult dogs.
A Word on Grain-Free Dog Food
Many pet owners believe that grain-free dog food means high-protein dog food. In fact, the average grain-free formula contains the same proportions of proteins to carbs as a whole-grain formula. The main difference is in the types of carbs.
Grain-free dry dog food typically uses potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, lentils and other legumes instead of grains like rice, oats, and barley. Grain-free formulas have been linked to heart disease in dogs and are currently under investigation by the FDA.
While it's too soon to draw conclusions from the investigation, we recommend avoiding grain-free formulas until we know more. We also have this advice for our fellow pet parents: Don't fear whole grains. Options like brown rice, oats, and barley are healthful, wholesome, and extremely unlikely to cause an allergic reaction in dogs.
How to Introduce an LID Dog Food
Even though you want your pooch's itchy skin and other allergy symptoms to clear up as soon as possible, resist the urge to change your dog's diet in one fell swoop. Changing foods too quickly can upset your dog's digestive system and lead to diarrhea, especially if your pup has a sensitive stomach.
Transition your dogs' food gradually over a period of 7-10 days, following these guidelines from the Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University. During the transition period, try supporting their system with a probiotic for dogs to help keep their digestive system on track.
The Testing Phase
Once your dog is eating 100% LID dog food, the testing period begins. Feed your dog only that food for 30 days. (Yes, that means no dog treats, but your bestie isn't doomed to a treat-free life. After 30 days, you'll be able to start gradually reintroducing ingredients.)
During the 30 days, pay close attention to see if your dog's skin allergies and other symptoms start to clear up. If they don't, then your dog most likely has environmental allergies. You can switch back to your previous food. Talk to your vet about options for treating environmental allergies — like Benadryl for dogs — and check out our recommendations below to naturally support your dog with healthy food and treats.
If your dog's symptoms do clear up, they may have food allergies. To identify which foods trigger an allergic reaction, begin gradually reintroducing the ingredients your dog was eating before their elimination diet.
We recommend testing chicken, beef, dairy, and wheat first (one-by-one, not all at once) since these are the most common allergens. Add a few pieces of cooked fresh chicken on top of your dog's kibble for three days. Wait two days.
If no symptoms emerge during that five-day period, you can safely feed your dog chicken. Move on to testing the next ingredient. Keep testing until you've reintroduced every ingredient in their previous dog food and treats.
Once you identify which foods trigger your dog's allergy symptoms, you need to come up with a long-term solution to keep that food out of your dog's diet.
The Best Dog Food for Allergies When You're Looking for a Long-Term Solution
We don't recommend feeding your pooch an LID dog food long term. While these diets are complete and balanced, your dog won't get a wide variety of whole foods, nor the natural nutrients and diverse amino acid profile that accompany a diet made with multiple animal proteins, whole grains, fruits, and veggies.
So instead of keeping your dog on an LID diet for an extended period of time, you should look for high-quality dog food formulas that don't have the offending allergen in their ingredient deck.
Find a Formula Without Your Dog's Triggers
Let's say your dog is allergic to chicken. You successfully identified this during your LID diet testing, and now you need to transition your dog to a more diverse diet that doesn't contain chicken meal.
Chicken is such a common ingredient in dog food, it can be hard to find a non-LID formula that doesn't include it. But as we mentioned earlier, many dogs that are allergic to chicken meat can still eat chicken fat because it's actually the protein they're allergic to. Try feeding your dog a diet that's free of chicken meat but contains chicken fat, and watch to see if their allergies return.
Try Hydrolyzed Protein Diets
If your dog is allergic to multiple proteins, you can try a veterinary diet, like Royal Canin or Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets, made with hydrolyzed protein. You'll need a prescription from your vet to order these foods, and they can be expensive, so we recommend checking the ingredient lists in your pet store dog foods before going this route.
Make Homemade Dog Food
You can also take complete control over what your dog eats and help them avoid allergy triggers by making a homemade pet food from fresh, whole food ingredients. However, many well-intentioned pet owners accidentally introduce nutrient deficiencies into their dog's diet when they go this route. So, we only recommend attempting homemade pet food if you're willing to work with a veterinary nutritionist.
The Best Food and Supplements for Environmental and Food Allergies
Whether your dog is suffering from environmental or food allergies, you can help ease their symptoms by supporting their skin, coat, and immune system. The following foods can bolster your pet's natural defenses against allergies. But, if your pet has especially severe allergies, they may need additional support. Talk to your vet to find the best solution for your best friend.
While most pet foods do a good job of including omega-6 fatty acids, many are lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, which help support healthy skin. (This is just one of the benefits of fish oil — studies have also found it to be more effective than glucosamine for supporting dogs' joint health.)
In one study, dogs who received a supplement containing fish oil saw improvements in their atopic dermatitis (allergic skin reactions). You can support your dog's skin by adding an Omega Oil supplement to their daily diet.
All-Natural Allergy Supplements
If your dog has environmental allergies or food allergies that aren't related to chicken, this chicken-flavored all-natural allergy supplement is easy to feed to your dog — just give it to them like a daily dog treat. It supports your dog's immune system with spirulina, an algae that offers anti-inflammatory benefits and, according to research, protects against allergy symptoms, like allergic rhinitis in humans.
The formula also includes probiotics to support the immune system and digestive system.
The Best Dog Food for Allergies Might Be a Supplement
While different pet food formulas can affect dogs with food allergies differently, there are several all-natural supplements with strong scientific evidence to support their effectiveness against allergies.
If you've run a food allergy test, and haven't been able to identify a trigger for your dog's allergy symptoms, try giving them fish oil or an allergy supplement. It will help support their immune system so they can become more resilient against the allergens in their environment.To learn more about your pet's health and wellness, visit the Native Pet blog.