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What’s The Difference Between Food Allergies And Food Intolerance In Dogs?

Written by Ella White


Puppy eating carrot

Just like us humans, our furry friends can sometimes be prone to allergies and intolerances triggered by the food they eat. But understanding, diagnosing, and treating these issues comes down to more than just understanding the causes and symptoms. It’s also important to know the difference between an allergy and an intolerance, and the impact each can have on your pup’s wellbeing. Sounds confusing? Don’t worry: we’ve got you covered.

Food allergies are an immune response caused by ingredients or specific foods. When the immune system picks up on an ingredient that it believes to be harmful – whether rightly or wrongly – it triggers a response that we know as an allergic reaction.  

Common food allergens for dogs include proteins like beef, chicken, dairy, and soy. Many dogs are also allergic to wheat and corn. The most common symptoms of food allergies in dogs include skin issues like itchiness, gastrointestinal or digestive issues like vomiting and diarrhea, respiratory problems like coughing or wheezing, and changes in their behavior like lethargy or restlessness. 

If your dog is displaying any of these symptoms, or you think they are suffering from a food-based allergic reaction, it’s important to work with your vet or a veterinary nutritionist to get an accurate diagnosis and the right advice on how to manage their dietary needs.

Food intolerance in dogs is a difficulty digesting certain food or ingredients. This is often due to enzyme deficiencies or gastrointestinal issues and unlike food allergies, which involve an immune response, food intolerance is typically a non-immune reaction. 

Common food intolerances in dogs include lactose, gluten, and sensitivities to certain additives or preservatives. The most common symptoms of a food intolerance is gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhea, bloating, gas, or vomiting. While food intolerance can cause discomfort and should be diagnosed and treated with the help of your vet, it is important to note that it is generally not life-threatening like a severe allergic reaction can be.

Understanding the difference between food allergies and food intolerances is important for several reasons.

Firstly, it helps in accurately diagnosing and appropriately managing the problem. Food allergies and food intolerances have different underlying ways of working, which means they need to be treated and managed in different ways. Knowing whether your dog is dealing with an immune response (food allergy) or a digestive issue (food intolerance) makes it easier to intervene and treat them appropriately.

Secondly, it helps you avoid putting unnecessary restrictions on your dog’s diet. If you assume your dog has a food allergy when they actually have a food intolerance, you might eliminate whole food groups when they actually only have an intolerance or reaction to one thing. By understanding the distinction, you can tailor your dog’s diet accordingly so they don’t miss out on any vital nutrients.

And finally, it helps in preventing severe reactions. While food allergies can cause severe and potentially life-threatening reactions, food intolerances typically cause discomfort and digestive issues. Recognizing the difference can help pet owners prioritize and address severe allergic reactions promptly while managing food intolerances appropriately to improve their dog's quality of life.

Diagnosing and managing food allergies or intolerances in dogs involves a step-by-step approach.

Veterinary consultation

As with anything concerning your dog’s health and wellbeing, you should always start by consulting your vet, who can guide you through the diagnostic and treatment processes. They will be able to review your dog's medical history, carry out a physical examination, and discuss the symptoms that have been observed. From this information they will be able to let you know whether your dog has an allergy or an intolerance and potentially carry out further testing.

Elimination diets

To work out what is causing a reaction or intolerance, your vet may recommend an elimination diet. This means removing potential allergenic ingredients from your dog's diet to help determine if food allergies or intolerances are present. During this trial period, you will need to closely monitor your dog around meal times to check for any changes in their symptoms.

Food trials

Once the food that’s causing your dog’s allergy or intolerance has been identified, the vet might recommend food trials to confirm their diagnosis. This generally involves reintroducing specific ingredients one at a time to help identify any allergic reactions or intolerance symptoms.

Dietary management

If your dog is diagnosed with food allergies, the most common treatment is avoiding the allergenic food entirely, so hypoallergenic or limited ingredient diets may be recommended. For food intolerances, the focus is on avoiding specific ingredients causing digestive issues. This tends to involve fewer changes and a less regimented diet plan.

Nutritional balance

Whatever your dog’s diagnosis, it’s important to ensure their diet remains nutritionally balanced, and covers all the key food groups possible without triggering an illness. If needed, speak to your vet or veterinary nutritionist who can help you select appropriate alternative ingredients and confirm that they are getting all their essential nutrients.

Regular follow-ups

Don’t miss your regular check-ups with the vet, as these are important for monitoring your dog's progress. Over time you may need to adjust their diet or management plan, and meeting with your vet often gives you a chance to address any concerns that arise.

Remember, proper diagnosis and management always require professional guidance, so always consult with a veterinarian for personalized advice tailored to your dog's specific needs.