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What are Food Protein Allergies in Dogs?

Food protein allergies are when a dog's body responds unusually (and inappropriately) to the protein in a food. This type of allergy is fairly common in dogs, even though proteins comprise much of the ingredients in commercial dog food. 

An allergy can develop from any protein at any time in a dog's life, even if they've eaten the same food for many years. Chicken and beef are the two most common food protein allergies, and these just so happen to be two of the most commonly used in dog food. Food protein allergies aren't limited to animal proteins — plant-based proteins like soy and corn can also cause reactions in dogs.

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Symptoms of Food Protein Allergies in Dogs

Food allergies typically present themselves as stomach or skin problems, but occasionally, anaphylaxis can occur. Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially deadly condition that requires immediate veterinary care. Here are the most common symptoms of food protein allergies:

  • Itching

  • Nausea

  • Diarrhea

  • Skin redness

  • Gas

  • Fur loss

  • Rash

  • Ear inflammation

  • Gnawing at the paws

  • Vomiting

  • Runny nose

  • Salivation

  • Saliva staining around the mouth

Symptoms of anaphylaxis:

  • Blue tint to the gums

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Hives

  • Respiratory distress

  • Swelling of the face, paws, mouth, or tongue

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Causes of Food Protein Allergies in Dogs

Food protein allergies occur when the body initiates a histamine response after being exposed to a protein that the body misidentifies as unsafe. Mast cells release compounds called histamines that attach to receptors, stimulating tell-tale signs of an allergic reaction like itching and swelling. More than half of a dog's immune cells are in the digestive tract, and when proteins aren't broken down enough, these cells can sometimes trigger an immune response.

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Diagnosis of Food Protein Allergies in Dogs

Usually, vets diagnose food protein allergies through the process of elimination. Vets will typically implement a novel protein diet that involves meats the canine has never consumed before; this will allow the vet to see if proteins are causing your pet's symptoms or if there are other, non-food contributing factors.

Novel protein diets often have unusual meats in them, like kangaroo, beaver, deer, or even ostrich, to name a few. Some veterinarians prefer to start dogs on a hydrolyzed protein diet when diagnosing food allergies. These diets contain highly processed proteins that are so small that they won't trigger an immune system response.

These prescription kibbles are often grain-free and have limited carbohydrates to ensure the dog isn't getting any common allergy-producing foods. If your dog is on a novel or hydrolyzed protein diet, you mustn't give them table scraps, other dog foods, or flavored medications since these may interfere with the results of the food trial.

Vets will typically prescribe these diets for 8 to 15 weeks to assess the dog's progress. If the dog's symptoms resolve with the hypoallergenic diet, the vet will ask the pet parent to reintroduce the original dog food. If the symptoms come back after reintroducing the original food, a food allergy is most likely. After diagnosing a dog with a food allergy, vets will typically ask that the owner gradually add small amounts of protein (like ground chicken or beef) to the hypoallergenic food to pinpoint the exact culprit.

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Treatment of Food Protein Allergies in Dogs

The first step in treating a food protein allergy is to remove the offending food from the diet. Symptoms will usually resolve in a few weeks after removing the culprit protein, though some dogs need medication to help them feel like themselves again. Below are a few of the most common medications used to alleviate symptoms of food protein allergies in dogs. 

Corticosteroids and antihistamines

Some vets suggest starting allergic dogs on corticosteroids and antihistamines to reduce the body's immune response. Vets may also prescribe steroid creams for itching and rashes. Corticosteroids and antihistamines reduce inflammation and the histamine response to certain stimuli, in this case, food protein.

Medicated shampoos

Some pet parents find that bathing their dog in medicated shampoo can also help. Antiseptic and antifungal shampoos may alleviate itching and help with skin infections due to scratching and biting. 

Antibiotics

Since food allergies sometimes bring about ear and skin infections, dogs may also require an antibiotic. Antibiotics work by halting bacterial replication or by destroying the bacteria directly. Antibiotics are generally safe, though they can cause secondary problems like yeast infections due to them killing healthy bacteria too. 

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Recovery of Food Protein Allergies in Dogs

Dogs with food protein allergies should make a full and quick recovery as long as they avoid their allergens. Pet parents should be diligent in checking nutrition labels of kibbles, treats, and medications to see if there are any ingredients that their dog is allergic to.

Unfortunately, food allergies are a lifelong condition, and they often worsen with age. Dogs who have a food protein allergy may become allergic to novel proteins over time and may require a rotating diet of kibbles to ensure a new allergy doesn't develop. A knowledgeable vet will give you guidance on appropriate foods to meet your dog's nutritional needs and show you what ingredients to watch for.

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Food Protein Allergies in Dogs Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

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