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Dog Food Intolerance Symptoms and Signs

Updated on November 7, 2013

Understanding Food Intolerance in Dogs

When a dog develops vomiting and diarrhea as a result of consuming a specific food, it's easy to label it as dog allergies, but the correct term for this is actually dog food intolerance. What's the main difference? There are several differences that set the two conditions apart. Recognizing the differences is very important as both require quite a different approach when it comes to looking for a better food to feed Rover.

What's a Food Allergy?

So let's first see what exactly a food allergy is. A food allergy in dogs occurs when the dog's immune system decides to categorize a specific protein or additive as threatening. Common culprits are beef, dairy products, wheat, chicken, egg, and soy. These offending substances are often known in medical terms as "allergens."When a substance is labeled as an allergen by the immune system, a whole cascading chain of events start happening. The immune system simply starts treating the allergen as an enemy, just as it would with bacteria or viruses. Soon,IgE and IgG antibodies are sent to combat this enemy with histamine and other substances released in the bloodstream. Both the histamine and these other substances are what typically cause allergy symptoms in dogs because they trigger the skin to get inflamed and the nerves to cause itchiness.

Unlike in humans, food allergies in dogs generally don't produce the all-too-common respiratory issues such as sneezing, coughing, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. Instead, when food allergies affect Rover, he'll most likely start to itch, scratch and rub repeatedly. This intense itching may be strictly localized to a certain body part (ie scratching ears, licking paws) or generalized to the whole body. The itching may lead to crusts, scabs and wounds that may even lead to further complications such as bacterial and fungal infections. Treatment often entails the use of antihistamines (to block the release of histamine), corticosteroids (to suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation) and antibiotic or anti-fungal medications (to treat secondary bacterial and fungal infections). However, these medications will only reduce symptoms, the real, best way to prevent them from happening is recognizing the offending allergen and avoiding it. This is accomplished through food trials using novel proteins or hydrolyzed diets.

What's a Food Intolerance?

In the case of dog food intolerance, the most remarkable detail is that unlike a food allergy, a food intolerance doesn't involve the immune system. There is no circulating histamine, or IgE and IgG antibodies triggering a dermatological response. Instead, there will be the release of IgA and IgM antibodies in the bowel's mucosal secretions causing the dog to likely develop some form of digestive upset under the form of flatulence, stomach gurgling, vomiting and diarrhea. This happens because the digestive system cannot properly digest the food. Indeed, unlike food allergies, a food intolerance in dogs simply occurs because some type of food doesn't agree with the dog. According to veterinarian W. Jean Dodds, dog food intolerance or sensitivity is quite common, ranking as "the third most common sensitivity condition in dogs and cats."


How to Deal with a Dog Food Intolerance

Because food intolerance in dogs doesn't involve the immune system, and therefore, there are no allergies and histamine involved, it's treated differently than an allergy. No medications such as antihistamines or steroids are involved. Rather, treatment mostly consists of dietary changes. The most obvious treatment plan would obviously consist of removing the offending food. In humans, this is quite simple. If you know that Mexican food gives you heartburn, you'll likely avoid hot peppers and other spicy foods. If you get a bout of diarrhea every time after eating ice-cream, you'll likely start a lactose-free diet. In dogs, things get a bit tricky.

Dog food is made of various ingredients, so it may be that just that one ingredient is the troublemaker. At times though, it could be more than one ingredient. A dietary trial is often needed so to monitor changes in symptoms, but this can take time and can pose some challenges.The dietary trial often consists of feeding the dog a novel protein he was never exposed to before for a minimum of 8 to 12 weeks. Often this entails feeding something like kibble made of lamb and potatoes or potato and duck. These are often called "limited ingredient diets." Afterward, if the symptoms subside, the dog is then offered the offending food (provocative testing) and is observed. Should the symptoms return, that confirms the diagnosis of food intolerance to that particular food.

Fortunately, a revolutionary test has been recently released on the market to help dog owners take the guesswork out. The test was developed by veterinarian W. Jean Dodds. The test is known as "Nutriscan", and there are two different test panels containing different ingredients. Panel 1 tests for dog food intolerance to beef, corn, wheat, soy, cow's milk, lamb, venison, chicken, turkey, white fish, pork and duck. Panel 2 tests for eggs, barley, millet, oatmeal, salmon, rabbit, rice, quinoa, potato, peanut, sweet potato and lentil.

The tests can be easily done at home by submitting a saliva sample that must be at least 2ml. This is collected by having the dog soak a special rope with saliva. It has been found that antibodies in food intolerant dogs can be found in their saliva at an early stage, even prior to a biopsy/diagnosis of IBS (inflammatory bowel disease). More about this revolutionary test can be found on the Nutriscan website.

Disclaimer: this article is not to be used as a substitute for veterinary or nutritional advice. If you suspect your dog has a food intolerance, see a veterinary nutritionist for proper advice. Nutritionists can be found on the American College of Veterinary Nutrition website.

Alexadry ©all rights reserved, do not copy


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    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      5 years ago

      Mel carriere, it's true, and some time no matter what, the poor dog still is reacting and the exact trigger food is hard to find.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      5 years ago

      Great to hear wetnosedogs that you found a food Bella no longer reacts to!

    • wetnosedogs profile image


      5 years ago from Alabama

      Great hub.

      Bella was my battle to wits end to stop her scratching. She know enjoys food that works for her not against her.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      5 years ago from San Diego California

      Anything that will help Rover stay happy is good to know. Sometimes we are very careless in what we feed our dogs, so this is great info. Great hub!

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for stopping by Bob. We used to sell at the vet special limited-ingredient diets and hydrolyzed diets in hopes of helping the poor itchy pooches.You are so right about treats. For treats, we often told them to use the same kibble, or if they were on canned food, they could bake it and make home-made treats.

    • profile image

      Bob Bamberg 

      5 years ago

      I run into this all the time when dealing with pet owners, Adrienne. It comes down to supporting the skin with the proper diet, including treats. If a dog has a wheat intolerance, they'll often be feeding a proper food, but then will give treats such as pizza crust and not really understand that they're supporting the intolerance.

      I think veterinarians have to question treats more, also. I can't tell you how many times I've asked customers if their vet knows that their itchy dogs gets pizza crust, etc. and the answer is "no."

      Indeed, I once had a vet come into my store to look at foods because he was about at his wits end with one of his patients. I asked him what the dog was getting for treats and he answered, "You know, that's a good question." Great article; I learned a lot.


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