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What Are Hypoallergenic Dog Foods? The Must-Read Guide

Written By Vedrana Nikolic | Canine Coach, B.A Ethnology & Anthropology, M.A Semiotics.
Edited & Fact Checked By Renae Soppe | B.A Journalism & Science. 
Last Updated: 14th January 2024

Our family dog used to develop mysterious skin rashes all the time. Before we managed to narrow down the cause of the rash, we tried various products that claim to be ‘hypoallergenic’ in some way.

However, my experience has revealed that the path to resolving these issues is far from clear-cut. While hypoallergenic formulas hold potential, the unpredictable nature of food allergies challenges the notion of a simple fix.

But what exactly are hypoallergenic dog foods? Let’s dive in!

Related: How To Choose The Right Dog Food?
Related: How Is Australia’s Dog Food Industry Regulated?
Related: What is AAFCO? The Association of American Feed Control Officials.
Related: What Is the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA)?
Related: AAFCO vs PFIAA: Dog Food Standards Comparison Australia.

Related: Understanding Guaranteed Analysis Levels in Dog Food.
Related: Real Meat vs Meat Meal.


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What Makes a Dog Food Hypoallergenic?

Hypoallergenic dog food refers to a type of dog food formulated specifically for dogs that have allergies or sensitivities to certain ingredients commonly found in regular dog food. Dogs, like humans, can develop allergies or sensitivities to various components in their diet, such as proteins, grains, or other ingredients.

Hypoallergenic dog food aims to minimise the risk of triggering allergic reactions or sensitivities in dogs by using alternative sources of proteins and carbohydrates that are less likely to cause adverse reactions. These alternative ingredients are typically chosen because they are less common in commercial dog food and are considered less likely to provoke an allergic response.

Common features of hypoallergenic dog food may include:

  • Avoidance of common allergens: Hypoallergenic dog foods typically exclude common allergens such as soy, wheat, corn, and artificial additives.
  • Novel protein sources: Hypoallergenic dog foods often use novel protein sources that your dog may not have been exposed to before, such as venison, duck, rabbit, or fish. This helps reduce the likelihood of triggering allergic reactions to common proteins like chicken or beef.
  • Hydrolysed protein diets: Hydrolysed protein diets take the ‘novel protein’ concept a step further. Hydrolysed protein is broken down to the point that it cannot be recognised by a dog’s immune system so it doesn’t cause allergic reactions.
  • Limited ingredient diet: Hypoallergenic diets often have fewer ingredients, which makes it easier to pinpoint potential allergens if your dog's symptoms improve while on the diet.
  • Grain-Free or alternative grains: Some hypoallergenic dog foods may be grain-free or contain alternative grains like rice or oats, as grains can also be a source of allergies for some dogs.

In the end, hypoallergenic means “relatively unlikely to cause an allergic reaction”. There is no magic feature that makes a certain type of kibble hypoallergenic. Moreover, food labelled as ‘hypoallergenic’ is not necessarily better than a limited ingredient formula with no special label, for example.


Food Allergies in Dogs

Yes, dogs can definitely develop allergic reactions to certain foods. What’s more, it can happen at any time during their lives - a dog can eat chicken just fine for years and then suddenly develop a reaction. Symptoms of dog food allergies include not only gastrointestinal issues, but also symptoms like itchy skin and frequent ear infections (1).

But, the thing is, the exact cause of these symptoms is not always easy to pin down. It could be any ingredient in your dog’s food that causes the allergy, or it might be something completely unrelated. And even if you are certain it’s the food that causes the problem, it might not necessarily be an allergic reaction per se.

“For pets that have symptoms only on certain diets, it could be due to a food allergy, but it could also be due to an intolerance – the food may have too much fat, too much or too little fiber, or have other properties or ingredients that don’t agree with that particular pet, but aren’t due to an allergy. Your vet can help you figure it out.” - Petfoodology Clinical Nutrition Team (2)

Still, food allergies or sensitivities to specific ingredients are fairly common in dogs. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s not wheat that causes problems most of the time. One study examined the causes of food allergies in 297 affected dogs. These were the top culprits:


Beef

34%

Dairy products

17%

Chicken

15%

Wheat

13%

Lamb

5%

Note that all the dogs in the sample had some kind of allergic reaction to food. So it’s not saying that 34% of all dogs are allergic to beef, just that in 34% of dogs who suffered from food allergies, the cause was beef.

If you’d like more details, you can check out the study, but the next allergens on the list were soy, corn, egg, and pork, in that order. One dog was also found to be allergic to tomatoes (3).


Does My Dog Need Hypoallergenic Dog Food?

This brings us to the most important question today: what can hypoallergenic dog food do for my dog? As mentioned, hypoallergenic formulas either have a limited number of ingredients or are processed in a special way (hydrolysed) to make allergic reactions less likely to occur. The issue is, the whole thing is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, as any of the ingredients that are included in hypoallergenic food might still be the ones that bother your dog (they are less likely to, but there is still a decent chance).

“If any individual dog can, hypothetically speaking, be allergic to any protein source, novel-ingredient foods can’t really be considered nonallergenic, and even those thought to be hypoallergenic may incite an allergic reaction in a particular patient. For these reasons, I don’t refer to novel or limited ingredient foods as hypoallergenic.” - Jennifer Coates, DVM for PetMD (4).

Elimination diets, in which potential allergens are gradually reintroduced to observe reactions, remain a gold standard for identifying specific triggers in dogs (2). Hypoallergenic dog foods can work, if you are lucky, but they should not be seen as a guaranteed panacea. Instead, a collaborative approach with your veterinarian, guided by your dog's individual needs and reactions, is essential in determining the most suitable dietary path.

References

  1. Coats, J. February 10, 2020. “How to Tell if Your Dog Has Food Allergies”. PetMD. Retrieved August 08, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/how-tell-if-your-dog-has-food-allergies
  2. Clinical Nutrition Team. January 27, 2017. “What every pet owner should know about food allergies”. Petfoodology, TUFTS University. Retrieved August 08, 2023. https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2017/01/food-allergies/
  3. Mueller, R. et al (2016). “Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (2): common food allergen sources in dogs and cats”. BMC Veterinary Research,12(9), 2016.  https://bmcvetres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12917-016-0633-8
  4. Coates, J. January 04, 2013. “Defining Hypoallergenic Dog Foods”. PetMD. Retrieved August 08, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/blogs/nutritionnuggets/jcoates/2013/jan/what-is-a-hypoallergenic-diet-for-dogs-29661

Vedrana Nikolic


Vedrana Nikolić is Gentle Dog Trainers Canine Coach, Professional Writer, Anthropologist & dog lover.

With a Masters Degree in Semiotics & Bachelors Degree in Anthropology, studying the communication between animals and humans, Vedrana is able to use her expertise to analyse and review dog products and write informative posts on canine behaviour and training.

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