In my experience, many dog owners feel their dogs have food allergies. However, it may be important to differentiate true food allergies from food sensitivities.
Confusing food allergies with food sensitivities (or intolerances) is a common mistake, not only among dog owners but also among veterinarians. Food sensitivities and food allergies are not the same thing.
Dog Food Allergies
True food allergies are much less frequent that food sensitivities. Food allergies reflect a more immediate immunological response. A classic example of a food allergy is anaphylactic shock seen after ingestion of peanuts or after being stung by bees: as soon as the person or animal comes in contact with the allergen, their airway closes and they can't breathe. This response is rapid. The antigen triggers an immediate and sometimes life-threatening reaction due to hypotension and shock.
A less severe but still serious form of allergic reaction is seen with development of dermatologic signs such as hives and facial swelling and itchiness. These can be accompanied by gastrointestinal signs, such as acute vomiting and/or diarrhea. These signs occur fairly rapidly but less so less then in the anaphylactic reaction.
Dog Food Sensitivity
Food sensitivity (or intolerance), on the other hand, is usually a chronic condition and often does not involve an immunological response. It generally a cumulative response to an offending agent.
Although they are generally not life-threatening, food sensitivities can affect many different aspects of the dog’s physical well being. Common signs of food sensitivity include:
- Gastrointestinal signs: often diarrhea the following day with or without vomiting.
- Dermatologic signs: Poor skin or itchy coat. Chronic ear or foot infections (yeast and/or bacterial)
What To Do If You Suspect Your Dog Has A Food Sensitivity
The first step in providing the proper relief to dogs with food sensitivities is to consult with your veterinarian to accurately identify the problem. There are tests available to help in the detection of the causative agent(s). With this information, you and your veterinarian can begin to find a feeding plan for your dog with a diet that agrees with his body.
If your primary veterinarian is unable to resolve the issue, you may be referred to a veterinary dermatologist. Finding the right answer may not happen quickly, but it is worth the effort over the life of the dog.
Dr. Jerry Klein is the Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC and is an emergency and critical care veterinarian who has been a valued member of the Chicago veterinary community for more than 35 years. In addition to his work as a vet, Dr. Klein is a licensed judge for the AKC and has judged shows both nationally and internationally.