Dog Food Allergies and Sensitivities: How to Help
Written by Ellen Barber
Published on September 24, 2020
If your dog suffers from itchy skin, ear infections, diarrhea, or other symptoms caused by food sensitivities or allergies, transitioning to a novel protein might be the answer. Dogs are more likely to have adverse reactions to foods they’ve eaten for a long time (which is one reason feeding your dog the same thing month after month can lead to problems). To avoid the foods that trigger bad reactions, you may need to find a protein source your dog has never eaten before. Consider the cricket.
Crickets are digestible, nutritious, and tasty. And they offer a safe novel protein for dogs who can’t tolerate more traditional foods. And there’s even more good news: AnimalBiome recently conducted a joint study with Jiminy’s, a maker of cricket-based dog food and treats, and found that crickets also promote a healthy gut.
Food Sensitivities and Allergies in Dogs
If your dog has hives, itchy skin, or gastrointestinal (GI) issues like diarrhea and you’ve already worked with your veterinarian to rule out other possible causes, those symptoms might be food-related. Figuring out the root of the problem can be tricky, though, because food sensitivities, environmental allergies, and true food allergies may cause some of the same symptoms:
- Itching (most often of the ears, paws, rear end, and belly)
- Hot spots
- Skin rashes
- Eye discharge
- Red eyes
- Hair loss
- Chronic ear infections
- Swollen face, lips, eyelids, or ears
- GI issues (such as flatulence, vomiting, and diarrhea)
In general, diarrhea and other GI symptoms are more likely to be the result of a food sensitivity than an allergy. Skin symptoms (such as itching, hives, and ear infections) are most often caused by inhalant allergies (due to environmental allergens such as dust and pollen), but they may also result from a food allergy.
Sensitivity or Allergy: What's the Difference?
A food sensitivity, also called a food intolerance, means your dog can’t properly digest a particular food. Typically, a dog with a food sensitivity will show symptoms within an hour of eating the offending ingredient. One example (in both humans and dogs) is lactose intolerance, an inability to digest milk products well, which tends to cause diarrhea, gas, and/or vomiting. In dogs that can’t process the nutrients necessary for healthy skin, food sensitivities may also cause itchy skin or ears, and repeated scratching can lead to hair loss and repeated infections. A food allergy, though it may cause similar symptoms, is a different condition.
An allergy is an immune response to something the body mistakenly perceives as a threat. This response requires extended exposure to the trigger, so symptoms may take a long time to show up. Many dogs suffer from flea allergy, for example, in which the body reacts to flea saliva with intense itching. Allergies to environmental factors, such as pollen, dust, and mold, are also relatively common in dogs.
Food allergies, however, in which the immune system reacts to an ingredient in the diet—usually a protein—as though it were a dangerous intruder, are actually not very common. A 2016 study published in the journal BMC Veterinary Research found that true food allergies occur in only 1%–2% of dogs.
What Causes Food Sensitivities and Allergies?
Food sensitivities and food allergies can occur in dogs of any breed and at any age. But we know that the longer the exposure to a particular food, the more likely a dog is to develop a sensitivity or allergy to that food. That’s one reason that feeding your dog the same thing for many months or years can lead to problems.
The foods that are most often associated with true allergies in dogs are beef, dairy products, and chicken—not because these foods are especially allergenic but because they are the ones most prevalent in commercial dog food. Allergies to other foods, including wheat, egg, lamb, soy, pork, rabbit, and fish, have also been identified.
It’s the proteins in these foods that trigger allergies in dogs. Carbohydrate sources are much less likely to cause food allergies, so grain-free diets typically contain just as many potential food allergens as standard diets. Preservatives, artificial colors, and flavorings in your dog’s food are also unlikely to cause true allergies, although these ingredients sometimes trigger sensitivities or adverse reactions.
How a Novel Protein Can Help?
A novel protein is just a protein source that’s new to your dog, one your dog has never eaten before and therefore hasn’t developed a sensitivity to. Whether the cause of your dog’s symptoms is a food sensitivity or a true food allergy, the best solution is to avoid the foods that trigger those reactions. Your veterinarian can help you plan an “elimination diet,” which involves removing all the foods your dog has been exposed to and transitioning to a novel protein source.
But considering how much the variety of commercial dog foods has expanded in the last couple of decades, finding a protein source your dog has never encountered before can be difficult. Venison? Kangaroo? Alligator? Insect protein has attracted increasing attention as a sustainable food source (for humans too), and crickets can be an especially useful novel protein for dogs with food issues.
Crickets are just as digestible as more traditional sources of protein for dogs (like chicken). They provide complete amino acids and beneficial fiber. They’re also a more sustainable food source: cricket farming uses much less water and other resources than raising cattle or other animals, and it produces virtually no methane or other environmentally damaging byproducts.
While no food is inherently hypoallergenic or completely allergy-proof, research published in the Journal of Animal Science found no allergic reactions or other adverse effects in adult dogs who were fed cricket meal in a long-term trial.
Crickets Promote a Healthy Gut
Crickets have been found to contain 58% to 78% crude protein and up to 18% fat, as well as minerals and vitamins, all of which makes them a high-quality food source. They also contain a lot of fiber, specifically the fermentable fibers chitin and chitosan. That especially interested AnimalBiome, because (for humans and pets alike) fermentable fiber is a prebiotic, meaning that it feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome.
The fibers chitin and chitosan are known to have significant beneficial effects on the immune system. They also increase the concentration in the gut of short-chain fatty acids, which are good for overall health as well as digestive function.
No research existed yet on the effects of crickets on the gut microbiome of dogs, so AnimalBiome conducted a study in partnership with Jiminy’s, a company that makes dog food and treats with cricket meal. Over 30 days, they fed four groups of healthy adult beagles on diets containing up to 24% whole cricket meal and assessed the dogs’ microbiomes using DNA sequencing of the bacteria in fecal samples.
The study found that whole cricket meal is prebiotic and supports a healthy gut microbiome in dogs. Crickets are also a sustainable food source, since cricket farming has a much lower environmental impact than raising cows or chickens, for example. And because they contain complete amino acids, crickets can be especially useful as a novel protein.
Is It Safe for My Dog to Eat Insects?
Catching and eating flies, moths, and other insects is normal hunting behavior for a dog. Like their wild cousins, dogs have evolved to eat a variety of foods, and their diets have historically included insects, which are high in protein.
The occasional fly or moth is pretty safe for your dog to eat, but many insects—such as cockroaches, June bugs, and caterpillars—carry diseases or contain toxins that may make your dog sick. Wild crickets often carry bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can infect dogs, but farmed crickets (like the ones used to make Jiminy’s dog food and treats) are raised under controlled conditions, following good agricultural practices and strict hygiene regulations.
The crickets that Jiminy’s uses in its products are washed after harvesting and then either roasted or pasteurized before being ground into meal. Finally, batches are lab tested for pathogens and parasites.
What is a Rotational Diet, and How Can It Help?
Dogs who eat the same food for a long time are more likely to develop sensitivities or allergies to ingredients in that diet. In addition, if that particular food happens to be missing one or more important nutrients, that ongoing deficiency may cause serious health problems over time.
One way to ensure better balance in your dog’s nutrition is to feed a rotational diet, sometimes called a revolving diet. This approach involves feeding three or four different brands of food with different protein sources in a slow rotation. Since cricket protein is new to most dogs, it can be an important element in a rotational diet. Once you’ve established three or four different diets that your dog tolerates well, transition your dog—gradually over the course of a week—from one of these diets to the next every two or three months.
This rotational approach reduces the likelihood that your dog will develop a food sensitivity or allergy. It also helps ensure that your dog gets a range of different proteins, carbohydrates, and other nutrients. If any one of the individual foods in your rotation happens to be deficient in a particular vitamin or other nutrient—perhaps because of inconsistencies in manufacturing—the other foods in the rotation will fill in those nutrient gaps.
This kind of dietary variety also supports diverse gut bacteria, and a diverse gut microbiome is associated with numerous health benefits.
To learn more about cricket protein, cricket farming, and Jiminy’s dog food and treats, visit the Jiminy’s website.
AnimalBiome’s at-home DoggyBiome Gut Health Test identifies bacterial imbalances in the gut and provides diet, lifestyle, and/or supplement recommendations based on your dog’s unique microbiome composition. Our Gut Health Test and Gut Restore supplement can help identify and even resolve some food sensitivities.
Interested in the joint study AnimalBiome and Jiminy’s conducted on the effects of cricket meal on the gut microbiome of dogs? You can read the full text here.
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