If your dog suffers from itchy skin, your veterinarian may have suggested a “diet trial” or “elimination diet” using hypoallergenic dog food as the most effective solution (1). Many people are familiar with other products that are labelled “hypoallergenic”, such as cosmetics, but we rarely see foods labelled as such. So what exactly is hypoallergenic dog food, and does will it work for your dog?
It’s common today for pet food companies to release a type of hypoallergenic dog food brands to go alongside their line of regular foods for dogs. But not every hypoallergenic food will work for every dog, or every canine health problem it may be bought for.
In the most basic sense, hypoallergenic dog food is easier for dogs to digest and absorb.
When it comes to pet foods, the term “hypoallergenic” means that while the food may still contain potential allergens, their molecular structure is so small that the dog’s body can’t recognize them. This is done by breaking down, or hydrolyzing, the proteins.
Hydrolyzed protein is a type of protein that’s broken down (hydrolyzed) into amino acids, which are very small. Yet this type of protein still provides a complete array of essential amino acids the dog’s body requires. This is done so that bodies of dogs that have sensitive digestive systems don’t have to work as hard to break down their food (protein).
Food allergies in dogs are recognized and detected in a similar way they are in people, and research shows that people and dogs share many of similar food allergies (2).
Which dog foods are really hypoallergenic?
The term “hypoallergenic” has no legal definition when it comes to pet foods.
Therefore, dog owners need to be aware when looking for an “allergy dog food diet,” as many dog food brands may have a word “hypoallergenic” on their package, but not include hydrolyzed ingredients. If food does not include the term “hydrolyzed” on the ingredients label, or if it contains more than one protein source, then it is not hypoallergenic.
Unfortunately, dog food labeling guidelines are not as strict as labeling requirements for human foods – Dr. Dana Brown has talked about this in Understanding Dog Food article.
Due to loose pet food regulations, companies find loopholes to mislabel their products, and it’s still legal for them to do so. For example, I’ve seen many bloggers write that Orijen-brand dog foods are “hypoallergenic.” This is not true – Orijen adult formula contains more than one protein source, all common allergens – eggs, poultry and fish.
While Orijen dog food itself is a great brand, it won’t work for dogs with allergies.
That being said, there are a few more things that you need to know about hypoallergenic dog foods, how exactly they affect dogs and how to pick the right one for your pet. With so many controversies in pet food market, I’d like for dog owners to stay informed.
Does Hypoallergenic Dog Food Work?
(and what else pet owners must know)
Why Do Hypoallergenic Dog Food Diets Exist?
Hypoallergenic diets were developed for dogs and cats that suffer from food allergies (3).
Food allergies in pets cause a wide range of problems – from chronic itchy or infected skin, to ear infections, to GI tract problems and more. Food allergies in dogs are most often caused by well-known ingredients that the pet has eaten before.
Several studies show (4) that the most common type of foods that dogs are allergic to are beef, dairy products, chicken and wheat. Further studies (5) show that dogs can be allergic to even more foods, with beef being on the lower scale:
Why are dogs allergic to some foods?
By design, the immune system in both dogs and humans is supposed to protect the body from foreign invaders that can hurt it, such as viruses and bacteria.
Allergies in dogs happen when the canine body’s immune system overreacts to a substance that is harmless, falsely labeling it as an “invader.”
For reasons that are still not fully understood by science, in some individuals and canines, the immune system is overly sensitive, and it will react with “allergy symptoms” to certain otherwise harmless substances. Some of these allergies can be genetically linked in dogs, while others may be due to previous exposure to a certain food item.
The reason most hypoallergenic dog foods alter their protein, is because studies have shown that protein is what most dogs and cats are usually allergic to (6).
Typically, it’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly what food item the dog may be allergic to. This is why the elimination diet using hypoallergenic dog food may be the most effective method we have today, allowing the vets and owners to find the…