At first you thought your dog's frequent scratching was from fleas, but thankfully, it turned out your pup is flea-free. Dry skin and chronic scratching -- particularly around the ears -- are common symptoms of food allergies in dogs. If your dog has a food allergy, be patient and work with your vet to learn what's triggering his reaction so you can figure out the best dog food for his allergies.
The Birth of an Allergy
If all is well with your dog's diet, after he eats, his food is broken down into nutrients and single amino acids to travel from his intestinal tract into his bloodstream. When his body develops a sensitivity or allergy to something he eats, his immune system kicks in to protect him from this newly perceived threat. It doesn't matter that he's eaten the same thing for years; his body's immune system is responding after repeated exposure to a trigger it found increasingly offensive over time.
Eliminating the Suspects
Generally, the culprit in a food allergy for dogs is dairy, wheat and protein -- usually beef, chicken, wheat, soy, fish, lamb and/or pork. As well, dogs are often allergic to more than one ingredient. Unlike you, your dog won't go to an allergist for testing, but instead, will have to rely on an elimination diet to figure out what elicits a reaction and what does not. Just as it took time for your dog to develop his allergic response, it takes time to determine what his triggers are.
It can take two or three months to determine what your dog can tolerate. After a dog improves from an elimination diet, he can begin to eat other items from his previous diet to learn what elicits a reaction, which is factored into what he needs to avoid.
There are a wide variety of commercial foods available using novel proteins -- something that should be completely new to your dog. Considered to be hypoallergenic, these foods should have only a single source for carbohydrates, such as potato, or pea, combined with a new, single source of protein, such as venison, duck or salmon. A hydrolyzed diet also may be an option; this diet uses animal proteins broken down into molecules so small they're unrecognizable to the immune system as an offensive ingredient.
You can find hypoallergenic dog food -- both novel protein and hydrolyzed diets -- at your vet or at your local pet store. The benefit to a prescription diet is you know there are no trace amounts of potential allergens in the food. Look for food supplemented with fish oils and preserved with vitamins C or E, also referred to as tocopherols. If you are up to the task of cooking for your dog, you'll be able to exercise ultimate control over what he eats, however you should consult a veterinarian or animal nutritionist to ensure your cooking is not only hypoallergenic, but nutritionally complete. Whatever you decide to feed your dog, be prepared to rotate his food approximately every three or four months so he doesn't develop another food allergy.
Supplements for Allergies
Dr. Karen Becker of HealthyPets advocates using probiotics and nutraceuticals to provide digestive and immune system support. Other supplements to boost the immune system and help itchy skin include essential fatty acids, such as flax oil or haddock, cod or salmon oil, gamma-linolenic acid, zinc and vitamins C and A. Discuss using a supplement with your vet to ensure you buy a high-quality supplement appropriate for your dog's dietary requirements.