How to Test Your Pet For Food Allergies

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Itchy skin and digestive upset may be a sign of a food allergy, so how can you test your dog for allergies? An elimination diet is the only reliable method of canine food allergy testing. Be sure to work with your veterinarian throughout the process to make sure your dog doesn't lack nutrients or food during the testing process.

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An elimination diet is the only reliable method of canine food allergy testing.
Image Credit: Ruta Lipskija/iStock/GettyImages

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Food allergy symptoms and causes

Itching without any other known causes is the most common symptom of a food allergy in dogs. Other common signs include frequent ear and skin infections and digestive problems, such as diarrhea and vomiting. Dogs may also experience weight loss or behavioral changes, such as aggression, hyperactivity, or lethargy.

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In general, dogs who have a food allergy develop the reaction by age 3. Food allergies are typically in response to a particular carbohydrate or protein in your pup's diet. Proteins are more commonly the culprit, and dogs may be allergic to any of the common dog food ingredients, such as beef, chicken, eggs, gluten, lamb, or soy.

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Canine food allergy testing

Can dogs be tested for food allergies? There isn't an effective test your vet can administer in the clinic, but food allergies can be diagnosed through an elimination diet. This is a lengthy process that requires you to strictly control your pet's diet.

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You will switch your pet's food and keep him on the new hypoallergenic food for eight to 12 weeks. It is important to be very strict with this diet. That means no treats, oral heartworm medications, or table scraps. If you have multiple pets in the household, make sure they are separated for meals.

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It is important that every family member understands the importance of the diet, as even a small bite can cause symptoms and may lead your vet to believe that food allergies aren't the problem when in fact they are. Consult with your vet regularly throughout the process to make sure your pet's symptoms are improving and that he is getting treatment for any ear or skin infections he may have.

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Food for an elimination diet

When deciding how to test for food allergies in dogs or cats, you need to select food for the elimination diet. The food should not contain any of the ingredients in your pet's old diet. One option is a home-cooked diet consisting of a carbohydrate and a protein not found in your dog's current food or treats. Alternatively, you can purchase a commercial prescription diet, such as Royal Canin, or food with hydrolyzed ingredients, such as Hills z/d Ultra.

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After eight to 12 weeks, if the symptoms have improved, you can reintroduce one ingredient from his old diet. If he remains symptom-free, that ingredient was not the culprit. If symptoms return, you may have identified one food allergen. Remove it from the diet and wait for your pet's symptoms to completely alleviate before attempting to add another ingredient to her diet. Don't add more than one thing at a time, as you won't be able to tell which food item is the problem.

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Treating food allergies

The only effective treatment for food allergies is to eliminate the problematic ingredients from your pet's diet. Once you identify the ingredients to which your pet is allergic, you may be able to switch to an over-the-counter food rather than a costly prescription diet. Unfortunately, this is a life-long condition, so you will need to check pet food labels and work with friends and family members to ensure your pet is never fed an ingredient to which he is allergic.

Food sensitivity tests for dogs

An elimination diet is time-consuming and not altogether pleasant for your pet, who is likely used to receiving tasty treats from the family. So, what about blood or saliva tests for food sensitivities? While these are certainly easier on your pet and offer quick results, they are frequently inaccurate.

In fact, a study reported by Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University found that the number of positive reactions on the test was the same for both the group of healthy dogs and the group of dogs with known allergies. Only one test result for the dogs with food allergies accurately identified the known allergen. These tests can lead to both false positive and false negative results and don't yield reliable results that you can use to develop a treatment plan for your pet.

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