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Dogs

A Practical Guide for Dog Elimination Diets

by Amanda Brahlek | 07.21.2022
A dog sitting at a picnic table enjoying their elimination diet

When a dog experiences discomfort from allergies, it can cause endless grief for concerned dog owners. Not knowing the culprit of your dog’s allergy can make providing your dog relief an ongoing challenge. This is why so many dog owners turn to elimination diets. An elimination diet is one of the surest ways to identify what dietary allergen is and knock out your dog’s symptoms. 

While extremely effective, an elimination diet takes time. It also requires strict commitment. So, if you’re ready to discover what allergens are bothering your best friend, learn how to effectively provide them with an elimination diet.

What Is an Elimination Diet?

An elimination diet, also known as a veterinary elimination diet, is an approach to feeding your dog that allows you to narrow down what ingredient or ingredients your dog is allergic to by feeding your dog specific proteins and grains. This approach is more effective than skin allergy tests as well as blood tests, however, it presents unique challenges with its strictness. Additionally, because it can take weeks for an allergen to work its way out of a dog’s system, elimination diets are anything but quick.

Most elimination diets use prescription dog food or a home-cooked approach. However, many dog parents can opt for store-bought food, as long as they’re extremely meticulous regarding the ingredients.

For a strict elimination diet, dogs receive one protein and one carbohydrate over the course of time. If the dog’s symptoms clear up over the course of a few weeks, the owner can rest assured their dog is not allergic to the protein or carb. If the dog’s symptoms continue, they will want to eliminate those ingredients from their diet and move on to another novel protein and carb.

How Does an Elimination Diet Work?

Most dogs with food allergies are allergic to either a particular protein or specific carbohydrates. By feeding a dog one novel protein and one carbohydrate at a time, then noting the body’s response over time, you can identify which ingredients a dog is allergic to. 

Some vets recommend re-introducing other foods after the symptoms of the allergy have dissipated in order to provide the dog with more options for their diet.

What Exactly is a Food Allergy?

A French bulldog sitting with a bowl of vegetables on one side and a bowl of meat on the other

Dogs can be allergic to environmental allergens or dietary allergens. Environmental allergies manifest from outside of your dog and usually cause itchy skin, ears, and paws. These are often seasonal allergies like pollen and mold, but they can also include household cleaners, shampoos, and even grass. 

Dietary allergens trigger the immune system from within the body. In other words, a dietary allergy is caused by something your dog eats. The body mistakenly sees the ingredient as a ‘harmful invader’ and sends the immune system to clear it out. The immune system then uses histamines to surround and push the allergen out through the skin (in the form of hives) or through the digestive system (in the form of gas, gurgling, vomiting, and/or diarrhea). 

Often, dog owners misdiagnose their dogs with an environmental allergy since dietary allergies often manifest in their dog’s skin.

What Are the Most Common Dietary Allergens for Dogs?

The most common food allergies for dogs are common proteins and carbohydrates. However, it’s not fully understood why many dogs will develop allergies to proteins they’ve enjoyed for years. 

Proteins dogs often have a reaction to include:

*Beef and chicken are considered the most common proteins to cause issues for dogs

Carbohydrates dogs often struggle to digest include:

Other ingredients that dogs have a sensitivity to include

What Is a Novel Protein?

“Novel” is another way of saying, “new.” They’re proteins that are “new” to your dog’s system. These proteins include grubs, rabbit, venison, kangaroo, and duck. Because these proteins are rarer in the most popular commercial dog foods, they’re novel or new to most dogs.

Novel proteins and elimination diets go paw-in-hand. This is because most vets recommend beginning your dog’s elimination diet with a protein your dog hasn’t had before. 

What Are the Signs That a Dog Has a Dietary Allergy?

A chart showing the signs of dog allergies

Symptoms of a food allergy can come in a variety of forms. Some dogs will have rashy, itchy skin while others will have GI issues, including diarrhea. There are even a handful of unlucky dogs that wind up with a combination of symptoms. If you suspect your dog has an allergy, look for these signs, from ears to rears:

How to Successfully Put Your Dog on an Elimination Diet

A Collie lapping up his new diet that doesn’t cause allergies

One thing is certain when it comes to implementing your dog’s elimination diet–there are no shortcuts. If you’re going to use this method to help determine which foods your dog can eat and to identify the culprit making them miserable, be sure to stick to the plan and prepare to tell well-meaning friends and family that your dog cannot get random treats or handouts.

Step 1: Talk to Your Vet

As usual, your veterinarian is going to be an invaluable resource during the elimination diet process. Chances are they’re responsible for sending you down this path, but, if not, be sure to schedule an appointment.

Your vet will be sure that your dog’s itchy skin isn’t from fleas (and prescribe you a flavor-free flea preventative). If you’re planning on home-cooking your dog’s food, they will also verify that what you’re providing will support your dog’s nutritional needs or help you find a supplement that works with an elimination diet.

For dog owners that don’t have time to prep their puppers’ meals, vets often offer prescription dog foods that will work.

Step 2: Prepare Your Dog’s Food Diary

A food diary is a powerful tool for keeping track of your dog’s progress and sharing that progress with your vet.

When you first begin your dog’s elimination diet, they will eat the same novel protein and carb for twelve weeks. You will want to use your diary to record the start date of your dog’s diet. Then use the diary to record how your dog’s symptoms change (or do not change).

As you introduce new foods in the future, you will use this diary to write them down and the results, too.

Step 3: Inspect Your Dog’s Current Food

Before choosing what novel protein and carbohydrate to feed your dog, take the time to read the ingredients list on your dog’s current food. Note the protein or proteins, including protein meals (such as fishmeal). Record these ingredients in the diet diary or take a photo of the ingredient list for future reference.

Step 4: Choose Your Dog’s Protein & Carb

Select a novel protein and a carbohydrate that were not in your dog’s initial food. Novel proteins can range in availability and price, so do your research and be sure you can obtain enough throughout the process. 

Grub protein is an excellent option since it’s high in protein and amino acids, and so few dogs have been exposed to this ingredient in the past. Plus, you can begin to integrate grub protein snacks like Vroomies back into their diet over time (since it can be difficult for many dog owners to not treat their dogs to a reward for being so awesome).

As for carbs that work well for an elimination diet, try canned pumpkin, potato, rice, or oatmeal. These are all considered gentle on a dog’s stomach.

Step 5: Transition Your Dog to their Diet

A change in diet requires a slow transition–an elimination diet is no different. Start your dog off with a 50/50 mix of their current food and their new diet. Over the course of a week, slowly decrease the amount of their standard food and increase the amount of new food. 

This is a great time to remind your family not to give your dog any human foods, snacks, or treats that don’t align with the diet. 

Step 6: Begin Taking Notes

It can take one to three weeks for an allergen to work its way out of your dog’s system but take notes daily on your dog’s progress. If their symptoms begin to clear up and stay clear after 12 weeks, you can rule out their current protein and carb as being the source of the allergy.

If your dog’s symptoms did not clear up, switch them to another novel protein and carb, starting over with a 50/50 mix and gradual transition. Repeat your observations. Be patient, and know that you will find a food that works for your dog, but it does take time for some.

Step 7: Begin Re-Introducing Other Foods

Your vet will likely recommend that you stick to a single protein diet with consistency in the carbohydrate as well. But you may want to add variety to your dog’s list of approved ingredients over time. To do so, add one new ingredient per week to their diet, noting any changes in their symptoms as you go.

If your dog’s symptoms reappear, look back over your diary, and eliminate then avoid the last two to three foods listed. Keep in mind that just because you’ve identified an ingredient your dog struggles with, doesn’t mean your work is done. Many dogs have multiple allergies, so continue to reintroduce foods one at a time.

Step 8: Choose Your Dog’s Diet & Remain Cautious

Once you know what your dog can and cannot eat, you can choose your dog’s full-time diet. Look for limited ingredient recipes with a single protein. These are often the easiest on dog’s tummies and their limited list of ingredients makes sorting through what’s in them a lot easier.

When you have guests over or you take your dog on an outing, bring along snacks that you know your dog isn’t allergic to. These will come in handy for people that want to give your dog a small token of affection without you needing to worry about what in the ‘mystery treats.’

Common Mistakes Dog Owners Make Along the Way

A Beagle about to eat a dog biscuit which likely is not part of their diet

Two of the most difficult aspects of an elimination diet are the duration and strictness. To keep you on track and as a reminder, to stick to it–there’s light at the end of the tunnel, avoid these mistakes along the way:

Treating Your Dog to Mystery Treats

Fact: Dogs are adorable. Fact: They use this to their advantage and trick many owners, friends, family members, dog walkers, pet sitters, dog daycare attendants, and strangers into giving them handouts. Don’t let your progress go to waste by falling victim to those puppy eyes. You may have to start all over if you do.

Find new ways to reward your dog. Many owners have the hardest time with not giving their dog treats and snacks. If you show your love to your dog in the form of treats, try expressing it in a new, healthy way. Some options include:

Losing Track of What Your Dog Eats

For multiple dog households, watch what your dogs eat or feed your dogs in separate rooms. Your dog with the allergy may sneak over to their sibling’s bowl after they’ve finished eating. 

While it may be tempting to introduce your dog to multiple new ingredients per week once their symptoms go away, try not to. Because it can take a week or more for symptoms to emerge, you wind up with a multiplication problem and a lot of confusion regarding the culprit should you get too hasty.

Eliminate the Allergen. Maintain Your Dog’s Health and Happiness.

A very happy chocolate lab outside on an adventure

As you go through the journey of an elimination diet, you will likely find your dog has a lot more energy and joy. Embrace these changes and celebrate their progress with fun rewards along the way. If you find yourself struggling to stay positive about your dog’s strict diet, think of the process as a way to free them of their discomfort rather than limiting their options. Many dog owners even find their dog’s new diet as a motivation to help their dog lose excess weight and partake in more adventures along the way!

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Amanda Brahlek

Amanda Brahlek

Amanda, author of The Complete Guide to Owning a Deaf Dog, is a lifelong animal lover that has dedicated her life to making pet ownership easier through her writing. She holds a certification in Chicken Behavior and Welfare through the University of Edinburgh. She is the proud pet parent of two dogs, a cat, and a small flock of chickens.

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