Dog Food Sensitivity

Picture of a dog on the dock

A dog food sensitivity can include both dog food allergies and dog food sensitivities or intolerances. Maybe you’re not sure what kind of food problem your dog has but you are reasonably certain that his issues are related to his food in some way. This is often the point where many dog owners begin trying to figure out what food or ingredient might be a problem for their dog.

Is it always a dog food sensitivity?

Food allergies and food sensitivities are not as common as many people believe. Food sensitivities can be indicated if your dog is having gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, flatulence, and a rumbling stomach. However, there are also other things that can cause these symptoms. Some of these other issues can be serious such as pancreatitis or irritable bowel disease or syndrome (IBD/IBS). Likewise, itching, skin problems, and even ear infections don’t always indicate a food allergy. Other kinds of allergies, for example, such as flea allergies and environmental allergies (atopy), are found far more often in dogs. Even seasonal allergies such as spring allergies due to weeds, trees, and grass pollens, can make your dog miserable. Mold and dust mite allergies can cause your dog to suffer, especially if he’s cooped up inside the house in the winter.

Sometimes, of course, dogs do have dog food allergies and dog food sensitivities, but if your dog is exhibiting symptoms that concern you, it’s a good idea to have your veterinarian examine your dog so you can have a real diagnosis.


Your veterinarian may suggest that you put your dog on a dietary elimination food trial. That means that your dog will eat one protein and one carbohydrate for several weeks. That’s all. No cheating. No cookies, snacks, treats that might contain other ingredients. At the end of this first phase, you and your vet will determine if your dog has had any reactions while on this diet. If things have gone well, you will challenge your dog by placing him back on his old dog food. If he starts to exhibit his old symptoms again, you are on your way to confirming that your dog does, indeed, have food allergy or food sensitivity.

What if it is a dog food sensitivity?

If your dog has a dog food sensitivity, you and your veterinarian can work to identify the exact ingredient(s) that cause your dog’s problems.

Dog food allergies are generally proteins, though they don’t have to be meats. Most food ingredients are made up of varying amounts of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. For example, even an ingredient as seemingly harmless as white rice contains about 8 percent protein, 2 percent fat, and 90 percent carbohydrates. It’s possible that some dogs can have an allergic reaction to protein in rice.

A food sensitivity, on the other hand, could be anything that upsets your dog’s gastrointestinal system. If your dog only has symptoms when he eats certain dog foods, the offending ingredient is more than likely something in those foods, but it might be anything. The food might contain too much fat for your dog’s digestive system. It might have too much – or too little – fiber for your dog. Under different circumstances, made by a different company, formulated in a different way, or in different amounts, the ingredient that upsets your dog’s digestive system might not bother him. Your dog might not be as sensitive to the ingredient in some other form. There are some dogs that are very reactive. In these cases a dog might react badly to even a small amount of some ingredient, no matter how it is prepared or what food you feed.

Does the quality of the food matter?

The quality of the dog food isn’t really the issue where dog food sensitivities are concerned. You could feed your dog the best dog food in the world and if it contains some ingredient that he can’t tolerate, the food is no good for him.

Obviously, it’s always preferable to feed your dog a good quality dog food but it has to be a food that he is able to eat without difficulties.

Which dog foods cause dog food sensitivity?

If your dog has a food allergy, current research shows that chicken, beef, dairy, wheat, eggs, lamb, soy, corn, pork, fish, rice are the most common food allergens. You will probably notice that these ingredients are also very common in dog foods. That’s not a coincidence. The more common the ingredient, the more likely it is to become an allergen.

As for dog food sensitivities, they can be very idiosyncratic. Along with things like fat and fiber, some dogs can have a digestive upset from dairy ingredients in a dog food; preservatives (including natural preservatives); herbs or spices; soy products; and other ingredients. In some cases a dog food might contain too much vitamin D, which has been the cause of dog food recalls with some foods in the past. Your dog might be sensitive to the vitamin D but the company might not announce a recall for months. Dog food contamination with Salmonella, Listeria, and other bacteria should also be considered. Again, your dog might be sensitive to something that isn’t announced in the news. If you feed raw dog foods, this is something that you should watch. According to the AVMA and other organizations, raw dog foods are more likely to be contaminated with some of these bacteria.

Are there any special foods to feed your dog if he has a dog food sensitivity?

Since dog food sensitivities usually depend on the individual dog, the best advice is generally to feed your dog a food that does not contain the suspected ingredient(s).

In the case of dog food allergies, no dog foods are completely “hypoallergenic” in the sense that they won’t ever cause an allergy. Some dog, somewhere is probably allergic to nearly everything.  If your dog really has a problem eating just about all dog foods because of his food allergies, a hydrolyzed dog food is probably your best choice. With these dog foods the molecules are so small that the dog’s immune system is unable to identify the protein. That means that the dog doesn’t produce an allergic response.

Contrary to what many people think, it won’t help your dog to feed a diet with exotic meat proteins such as kangaroo or ostrich. Your dog is just more likely to become allergic to kangaroo and ostrich and you’ll have to find something else to feed him.

Changing or rotating your dog’s diet all the time has also not been shown to prevent allergies or sensitivities. This will, however, mean that you can’t use any of these foods in an elimination food trial since your dog has already been exposed to them.

Grain free dog foods are not especially good for dogs with allergies or food sensitivities. As for gluten,  gluten sensitivity in dogs seems to be very rare.

Many people look to limited ingredient diets (LID) if they have dogs with food sensitivities or food allergies. Some of these foods are better than others. One frequent criticism is that the diets that are sold over-the-counter at stores and online are not really “limited ingredient.” Most of them have a couple of dozen ingredients. They certainly have more than one protein and one carbohydrate which is what is required for a true limited ingredient diet used in a dietary elimination food trial. Most of these dog foods are made in the same facilities and on the same machinery as a company’s regular dog foods so they tend to pick up ingredients that aren’t listed on the label.


Dogs that have food sensitivities can be sensitive to something that is unique to that dog; to too much fat or fiber in a food; or to bacterial contamination of the food. Sometimes a dog can tolerate an ingredient if it’s in a different formula or made by another company but in some cases a dog will always react to an ingredient. Many of the dog foods made today for dogs with food problems tend to make some exaggerated claims.



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