5 Myths About Food Allergy In Dogs

Updated November 28, 2020

If you have an itchy dog, it doesn’t take long before someone tells you it’s due to the food. Usually that someone also offers an alternative.

It’s not a case of people trying to pull a fast one; they just believe in what they use. Who doesn’t? If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The trouble is, though, most owners of dogs with skin problems aren’t getting the advice they need. Or they’re getting it far too late.

So join me while I explore the five myths that prevent itchy dogs from getting the right treatment, food or otherwise.

Myth 1: Most itchy skin is caused by food allergy

No one is saying food allergy doesn’t exist. However, it’s only one of many causes of itching in dogs.

The most common cause of itching is still flea or mite infestation. This is true whether you can see fleas or not. Before good flea controls, even vets got this wrong.

Almost as common in a temperate climate is allergy to pollens, dust mites, or grasses. Sometimes it feels like we vets spend more time treating skin allergies in dogs than doing anything else. This will vary a little based on where you live.

When Claire and I studied, we were taught that food allergy is only 1 to 2% of itchy dogs. Recent studies come up with 15 to 20%. Whichever way it is, there are other things you should think of first.

Myth 2: Skin foods are just for food allergies

Just because food allergy isn’t common doesn’t mean foods don’t help itchy skin. Most dog owners don’t realise that there are two sorts of skin diet. The other sort for nutritional support of skin is criminally under-used.

Two Australian products are Royal Canin Skin Support® and Hills Sensitive Skin®.

Some dogs respond well to these specially made skin health diets, while others improve on raw diets. The idea is to increase diet quality and add factors known to help the skin. With a bit of trial and error, nearly every itchy dog will get some benefit.

Myth 3: Most dog allergies are to grains

There’s no doubt that grain allergies exist, it’s just that they’re nowhere as common as you are told. Proteins such as beef and dairy actually cause the highest number of adverse food reactions in dogs. You can read the full list of dog food allergies here.

In practice, the dogs that improve on grain-free diets are probably just responding to a better diet in general. So while you are very welcome to feed a grain-free diet, it’s not a priority to most vets, and there are better ways to help your dog stop scratching.

Update (2019): This article discusses a possible link between certain grain-free diets and heart disease

Myth 4: I can test my dog for food allergy

Do a Google search and you’ll be bombarded by ads for food allergy tests. Please stay away from these.

There is currently no reliable test for any adverse food reaction in dogs other than the good old elimination diet. Other tests will just give you a load of misleading information. In other words, the only way is the hard way. Sorry.

Myth 5: I changed the diet so it can’t be food allergy

Many food intolerances will improve by diet change, but we’re talking allergy. That’s when the immune system starts reacting to a harmless protein as if it’s a threat.

As anyone with a nut, gluten or shellfish allergy knows, any amount, no matter how tiny, will provoke a response. Even if a food says “beef” or “salmon” on the label there are usually other ingredients. Plus, the food is likely to be made on equipment used for other foods.

Then there’s the issue with inaccurate or missing ingredient lists on Australian pet foods.

So How DO I Find Out If My Dog Has A Food Allergy?

Food allergies are clearly still important. I’ve told you what doesn’t work so let’s finish with what does.

As part of a thorough workup, every dog with skin disease should be investigated for food allergy. The only way to do this is a properly designed and executed food trial. Please visit our page on homemade and commercial elimination diets if you want to learn more.

But in the meantime, don’t stress. Your dog most likely isn’t scratching because of the food you chose. And even if they are, there is a clear path to fixing it. Just not the one most people are told.

Now Have Your Say For Aussie Pets!

The fact that you’ve made it to the end tells me you care about pet food, and that you’re a stayer. Now use these rare powers for something incredibly easy and important!

The recent media scandal caused by deaths of dogs eating Advance Dermocare has triggered a Senate inquiry. Everyone is welcome to make a submission. The more that are received the better the chance of real change.

Visit our page on the Senate Inquiry into Pet Food Safety. You’ll find links and instructions for sending a submission. You can say as little or as much as you like, and address only one of the points or all of them. Personally, I’ve used it to call for pet foods to be regulated like human foods.

The voice of ordinary pet owners needs to be heard, not just the special interests. Submissions close on the 20th of July, 2018.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

4 Replies to “5 Myths About Food Allergy In Dogs”

  1. My American bulldog did not appear to have any allergies when I first adopted her at the age of 18 months after a few months I noticed that she had a lot of stomach issues with flatulence so we placed her on grain free food which helped with her stomach although then she began to have severe skin allergies that we thought was from contact with grass.
    I purchased a special allergy suit which did work temporarily but obviously once the allergens get into the suit we’re back to square one. Then we took her to the vet and they put her on steroids and a prescription diet of the hills science skin and stomach which also assisted with reducing the severity although we are still having massive flareups at times and not even Cortizone is relieving her, we are extremely strict and only feed her her prescription diet and nothing else I’m at a complete loss of what to do and this is costing me an absolute fortune.
    There is so much mixed advice out there on what to do, that I am confused and don’t want to continue to waste time as my dog is suffering every moment that we do not come up with a more successful plan to reduce suffering.

    1. Hi Terri. Sometimes it seems like everyone’s pulling you in different directions when you have a dog with skin problems. This page was written especially because so many people tell you it must be the food (which it rarely is). Having said that you may consider trying an elimination diet at some stage.
      Firstly though, I would encourage you to look at two other pages on our site: a list of the treatments used for Canine skin problems, (with special mention of the two treatments at the very end even though they are somewhat expensive) and the essential treatments that owners should do at home (with special mention for the first two). I strongly believe that every dog can be made comfortable so I wish you all the best.

  2. Hi, my dog appears to have itchy back feet. The front feet seem ok. He is 6 yrs old and on the raw diet. I’ve eliminated chicken, two weeks ago [all chicken products] and switched him to turkey so far no change. He’s just finished meds [from the vet] which he was on for 2 weeks. No change. He’s been scratching his ears a little bit too. Is there NO test out there that can pin point the cause? I’ve seen one on the net that tests over 112 possible allergens from your dogs saliva. I can’t mention the name of the place. If I do the elimination diet totally, how would I know it’s not actually caused by pollen etc.? I’m just baffled. He has no fleas, mites or parasites [he’s been treated for those as a preventative].

    1. Hi Jude. Beware false promises. Once you start spending money on tests marketed to you online you’re far better off getting advice from a veterinary dermatologist. There’s sure to be one in your area. These people provide the only reliable way to identify the cause but it’s still an imprecise science. The other alternative is to make an informed guess as to the cause (usually atopy) and treat for this. Read more at: Atopic dermatitis in dogs, Why dogs have itchy feet and Treatments available for itchy dogs.

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