The need for an elimination diet for dogs often comes when a dog who is experiencing red inflamed ears, itching, vomiting, IBD, rashes, loose stools, etc. It can be a very frustrating time for both dog and owner. So what do you do? How do you help your dog? Getting to the root of the problem is the best way to overcome these issues. Oftentimes, you’ll need to work alongside your veterinarian or a nutritionist to ensure you’re taking the right steps during an elimination food trial, more commonly referred to as the elimination diet for dogs. I call it an elimination food trial instead of an elimination diet for dogs because this is a temporary trial period to figure out what the triggers are for your specific dog.
The purpose of an elimination food trial is to get to the root of the problem foods and understand which foods are triggers and which are safe to feed. Before going into how to do an elimination food trial, let’s understand the differences between an allergy, intolerance and sensitivity.
A Food Allergy vs. Intolerance or Sensitivity
The term food allergy is used constantly to describe pets’ reactions to food when a true food allergy is quite rare. It’s estimated that only 10% of dog’s allergies are truly food allergies. Usually, the pet is experiencing an intolerance or sensitivity to a particular food or even something in the environment posing as a food intolerance or sensitivity.
How do you tell the difference between a food allergy and an intolerance or sensitivity? A food allergy is a rapid reaction that happens quickly after the dog has been exposed to the allergen. This can include hives, rashes, anaphylaxis, bloating, sneezing, or loose stool. Food allergies are typically genetic and an immediate immune response. They can show up early on in the dog’s life and last a lifetime. With that said, some true allergies can come out of nowhere due to a weakened immune system and GI tract. Many dogs with conditions like IBD can develop food allergies as a result of their gut health being compromised.
A sensitivity or intolerance is more of a reaction within your dog’s digestive system vs. an immune response causing an allergic reaction. This intolerance presents itself as itching, red ears, loose stool, vomiting, and cramps. An intolerance doesn’t appear immediately like an allergic reaction, it appears after hours, sometimes days.
How to Do an Elimination Food Trial
- If your dog is ill or has other diseases then you should ask your veterinarian before proceeding.
- Choose if you’ll be doing the trial with raw or cooked foods
- Choose a novel (new) protein. Novel proteins are often bison, lamb, duck, rabbit, venison, quail, etc. This protein should have never been eaten before by the dog.
- Choose a carbohydrate that is also new to the dog. This could be millet, buckwheat, barley, quinoa.
- Start by feeding the dog half protein and half carbohydrate for 2-3 weeks and document in a journal the results. You should note stool, any itching, redness, behavior, etc.
- A food trial can last anywhere from 6-12 weeks. I like to start with half protein and half carbohydrate for 2-3 weeks and then add in a nutrient-dense organ such as liver from the novel protein source. So then you would feed for another 2 weeks half protein and ¾ carb and ¼ organ. This diet is temporary and is in no way balanced or complete so it must be temporary. You can also include supplements (that don’t contain animal protein) such as calcium and zinc during this time. Again, like mentioned above, it’s a good idea to work alongside a veterinarian or nutritionist to help guide you.
- Once you have an idea of if these foods are triggers or not, you will want to start building the diet further for your dog by adding in other ingredients to cover nutrient requirements and balance the diet.
How to Determine if the Results of the Elimination Food Trial
If your dog is doing well after 2-3 weeks of the elimination food trial then it can be recommended to introduce a food that could be a trigger food to see if the dog does have adverse reactions. Once you see if this happens then you can go back to the novel trial diet and build a complete and balanced diet properly from there. If your dog has not improved at all after 3-4 weeks then there could be an underlying factor, or you need to choose a different novel protein and carbohydrate to try. I recommend feeding a balanced diet for a few weeks before starting a second elimination food trial.
Triggers to Avoid or Eliminate for Dogs with Intolerances
This list of foods really depends on the individual dog but I felt it’s worth noting that these are often foods that dogs are reactive to. While any food can cause an intolerance or allergic reaction, these are ones that are very common.
- Dairy including goat’s milk
- Foods high in histamines such as fermented foods and bone broth
- Dust mites (in packaging and bags)
- Food additives
I’ve Figured Out My Dog’s Intolerances, Now What?
Now you need to ensure your dog eats a balanced and complete diet whether that is one you find that is available commercially or one that is formulated for you through a nutritionist like me. I offer limited ingredient formulations for dogs with food allergies or intolerances. It will also be a good idea to work on healing your dog’s gut through the use of pre and probiotics, non-triggering foods, alleviating stress, etc. If you’re still stuck and struggling with your dog’s food intolerances after doing an elimination diet, it might be worth it to work with a veterinarian who specializes in allergies and intolerances or to work alongside a nutritionist.