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What are Dietary Reactions?

Your pet’s nutrition is an important part of their overall care. An abnormal change in the health of your pet when suspected to be related to diet, needs to be investigated by your veterinarian immediately, simply because food is such an important part of life. Persistent adverse reactions could mean an intolerance or an allergy. Itchy skin, poor hair coat and vomiting are just a few of the signs of trouble.

A dietary reaction is also be referred to as an adverse response to food that has been consumed. Dietary reactions often become evident in skin or gastrointestinal symptoms.

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Symptoms of Dietary Reactions in Dogs

The dietary reactions we can see resulting from adversity to additives, food allergy (like wheat), or metabolic reaction (such as lactose intolerance), to name a few, are similar. Not all of the symptoms listed here will be evident in each reaction.

  • Inability to gain weight
  • Pain or bloating in the abdomen
  • Extreme itching and scratching in the regions of the ears, feet, and perianal area (pruritis)
  • Soft feces
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting 
  • Gas and flatulence
  • No appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Failure to thrive
  • Lethargy
  • Poor hair coat and dandruff
  • Ear inflammation and sometimes ear infection
  • Skin pustules and scaling of the skin


The subject of dietary reactions can be looked at in various ways. Several classifications have been given to different areas of allergic response and adversity to food.

Conditions with immunologic basis

  • Food allergy
  • Oral allergy syndrome
  • Food anaphylaxis (acute food allergy)

Conditions with non immunologic basis

  • Food intolerance
  • Food poisoning
  • Food idiosyncrasy (can be a psychological reaction)

A drug like effect of food to a canine is called a pharmacological reaction, and the ingestion of indigestible food, or a habit like pica is called a dietary indiscretion. 

Causes of Dietary Reactions in Dogs

Dietary reactions in dogs have many origins, a few of which are listed here.

  • Genetics
  • The state of health of your dog
  • Reaction to food additives, colorings or spices
  • Allergy or intolerance to proteins such as eggs
  • Toxicity of old food or food that has been scrounged for in garbage
  • Pharmacological reaction such as with histamine
  • Sudden change in diet
  • Beef, dairy products and wheat are the most common foods causing a reaction
  • Next are chicken, chicken eggs, lamb, and soy
  • Adverse reactions to pork, rice, corn, and fish are rarely reported
  • Younger dogs are more prone
  • Gastrointestinal reactions are most commonly documented in German Shepherds, Irish Setters, and Shar-Peis
  • Cutaneous (skin) reactions to diet are noted in Cocker Spaniels, Springer Spaniels, Dalmatians, Dachshunds, Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Collies, German Shepherds, Lhasa Apsos, Boxers, Shar-Peis, Miniature Schnauzers, Wheaten Terriers, and West Highland Terriers

Diagnosis of Dietary Reactions in Dogs

As you consider the possibility that your beloved pet may be having a dietary reaction to his food, it may be wise to start a food diary, to document what you are feeding to your dog, along with his reaction after he eats. When you bring your dog to the veterinarian to discuss the possibility of a dietary reaction, bring along the can or bag of food that you are feeding him. 

In addition, it will help the diagnosis if you are prepared to answer the following questions as your veterinarian performs the physical examination.

  • What type of diet are you feeding your dog?
  • Is this a new diet, or has he been eating it for some time?
  • When did he start having a reaction?
  • What type of reactions have you noticed?
  • Are there gastrointestinal symptoms?
  • What is the appearance of his skin?
  • Have his urinary or bowel movements changed?
  • Has he been rummaging in garbage, or hunting wildlife?

Your veterinarian may choose to do a complete blood count, biochemistry check up, and urinalysis. Though these tests may not show significant markers pointing to an adverse dietary reaction, they can rule out other possible conditions that may be causing the symptoms you see in your pet. Your veterinarian may also test for ectoparasites in addition, as symptoms may warrant.

Diagnosing an adverse reaction to food is not an easy one. Scientists are working on tests that will one day be able to indicate hypersensitivity and problem causing components of our pet’s food.

Treatment of Dietary Reactions in Dogs

Treatment, or better said, change of diet, will begin after a food trial. A trial for a period of 6 to 12 weeks is the best way your veterinarian has of pinpointing the additive, component, or protein that could be causing trouble for your furry family member.

Home cooked food

  • This diet will contain a single protein and a single carbohydrate
  • Nutritional balance could be an issue, especially in young dogs
  • Ask your veterinarian for a balanced home cooked meal to try

Hydrolyzed protein-source diets

  • During hydrolysis, proteins are broken down, making them less likely to cause an allergy
  • Cost and palatability could be issue

No snacks, treats or supplements will be permitted during the trial. There are now some commercial hydrolyzed protein-source treats available, if you choose to go that route.

The dietary trial will need to be closely monitored by contact with the veterinary team, but it is advised that you also keep careful records of the food given, time given, and whether the reactions seem to be lessening. Your veterinarian will advise what to start adding back into the diet, as appropriate.

Compliance will be tough at times. Keep these points in mind.

  • Do not stop the diet prematurely
  • Communicate with your veterinary caregiver often
  • This will take up some of your time (documenting diet, preparation of homemade food)
  • Treats must be eliminated
  • Your dog may not want to eat the trial food; let your veterinarian know if there is an issue

Recovery of Dietary Reactions in Dogs

Studies are ongoing in the area of dietary reactions; the field is still wide open as to new knowledge being learned every day. For now, we must do our best to help our pets who do have allergies or adverse reactions to the food they eat.

If the homemade diet works for your pet, you may choose to continue it. Often, large batches can be made and frozen, making the necessity for this type of food an easier task. However, your veterinarian will work together with you to ensure that the nutritional needs of your dog are met, while avoiding additions to the food that will start a new reaction.

If the hydrolyzed protein-source has worked as a feeding alternative for your canine companion, then the nutrition will be adequate. Continue to keep in good contact with the clinic as you embark on the new feeding regimen. Having a pet with special dietary needs will require good communication between you and the veterinary team.

Dietary Reactions Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Border Collie
Seven Years
Fair condition
0 found helpful
Fair condition

hi doctor, I keep seeing everywhere that raw food diet is the best for dogs whereas others are saying homemade food is the best but I see some dogs are also healthy by eating kibbles. I'm very confused as I give homemade food and kibbles. but I don't know if that's giving him all the nutrients he needs. what do you think is the best option?

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3320 Recommendations

There are many websites and forums promoting raw diets and homemade diets. I always recommend that unless there is a specific dietary requirement diagnosed by your Veterinarian, always feed a complete diet to your dog. When a homemade diet or raw diet is prescribed by a Veterinarian, you would be given the specific ingredients and quantities to feed to ensure that your dog is receiving the correct nutrition. Speak with your Veterinarian about Scientific and Prescription Diets that are commercially available and the alternatives. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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Border Collie
Seven Years
Fair condition
0 found helpful
Fair condition

hi doctor, in one of the questions I've asked you, you recommended hill's prescription diet metabolic + mobility canine. not only you but I see many vets recommend this food for dogs with osteoarthritis or joint problems. but the thing here is, I see so many negative reviews from people who have tried this food and I realised the ingredients on this food aren't really healthy ones as they have corn and wheat etc. if so why do vets still recommend this food?

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3320 Recommendations

People are concerned about gluten in their, their children and their pet’s diets. Many people believe that gluten has many bad affects on the body; in reality only a small proportion of the population of people and animals have gluten sensitivity. Since the internet has allowed people to air their views on health and dietary products, you find many peoples opinions on medical issues; depending on where you read vaccines are bad, gluten is bad etc... The vast majority of commercial pet food diets contain corn and wheat products with no ill effects on the health of pets around the world. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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