In last month's blog, we explored the differences between food intolerance and allergies and how proteins and grains play a role in these conditions. This month, we explore how to help or prevent food allergies by using novel proteins or rotation diets. If you think your pet has a food allergy, the first step is to consult with your veterinarian to rule out any other health issues.

Ideally our pets eat healthy food that is digested into amino acids and nutrients to help them grow and thrive. A dog's healthy digestive system is coated with a near-perfect balance of bacteria that protects against foreign invaders, undigested food particles, toxins, and parasites.  As we know, dogs often eat strange and inappropriate things like poop, rocks, socks or rotten things. Fortunately, most of the time their systems reject these substances and pass them through as waste.


But some dogs can develop an allergy or intolerance to healthy food even after years of eating the same diet. One underlying reason why a pet may develop an allergy to a favorite food protein is dysbiosis or “leaky gut”.  If gut bacteria is out of balance, the GI tract may become unstable and inflamed and begins to leak larger, partially digested food particles into the bloodstream. When this happens, your pet’s immune system reacts to battle these undesirable invaders in their blood stream through allergic reactions. 

The subject of dysbiosis or leaky gut is an important topic and one that deserves its own blog. There are various reasons why a dog may develop a food allergy but we will devote this column to handling protein intolerance or allergies no matter what the suspected underlying cause.

Novel Proteins

If protein allergies seem likely, you should analyze your pet’s food ingredients closely to establish a baseline of potential causes. Rather than attempting a strict elimination diet, change the primary protein first. Chicken and beef are the 2 most common proteins known for allergies.

If your current food brand has other recipes that do not contain the suspected protein, it is best to stay within that product line and not introduce too many new ingredients at a time. Gradually introduce the new food mixed with old food over several days to see how your pet reacts. Changes in diet often do not show dramatic allergy improvement for several months but negative reactions can be early and sudden.

Start with more common proteins first such as turkey, beef, fish or lamb. Going immediately to the more novel proteins may be problematic if your pet develops future allergies to rare meats, then there are fewer options to try.

If you suspect your pet is allergic to chicken, it is okay to switch to another poultry type. Turkey is a common pet food protein, but there are also duck, pheasant and guinea fowl available as primary poultry proteins.

Many vets recommend feeding fish as the primary protein and both freshwater and saltwater fish recipes are widely available.

Where beef is the suspected intolerance, try lamb if your pet prefers a red meat diet.

Some pets are starting to react to lamb because of its increased availability. Consider switching to venison, bison, goat, wild boar or pork proteins.

Rabbit is becoming increasingly available primarily in raw or freeze-dried forms but is less common in canned or kibble recipes.

Limited Ingredients

Pet food recipes can be simple or complex with a wide variety of proteins and starches included in the same recipe. If dealing with allergies or attempting an Elimination Diet, stick with foods that contain a single protein type. When possible, choose recipes labeled as limited ingredients and read the labels carefully for allergic dogs.

Many food brand recipes include multiple protein types in their recipes. Names can be misleading and the label may say beef but may also include chicken meal, chicken fat, eggs or other protein types. This is often seen with novel proteins, as some exotic meats are a bit more expensive, harder to source and are often mixed with other proteins. For example, Canidae Pure Real Bison formula contains – Bison, lamb meal, sweet potatoes, peas, lentils, carrots, pork meal, tapioca, canola oil, suncured alfalfa, natural flavor, taurine minerals....etc. Note that this recipe would be considered a limited ingredient recipe because of the short list of foods included but still has multiple proteins.

Mixing proteins is not bad if your goal is variety or a rotation diet. Many dogs enjoy the variety and mixing proteins can actually result in a higher quality overall protein % but if allergies are the concern, stay with limited ingredients.

Rotation Feeding

Dogs are scavenging, or facultative carnivores, which means they are primarily meat-eaters, but can survive on plant material alone if necessary. In the wild, canids seldom eat the same food every day and scavenge what is available. Rotation feeding is generally understood as when a pet owner provides a change in primary proteins on a regular basis. Rotation feeding is really about variety. Variety in food proteins or variety in food formats such as canned, kibble, raw or homemade. Food/proteins work best when rotated approximately every 3 mos. New foods are introduced gradually and fed long enough to see any affects from the change if using this as an approach to dealing with allergies.

Rotation feeding may be counter productive if trying to isolate a protein that is the source of an allergic reaction. Consider rotation feeding as a preventative measure. The approach is controversial for some veterinarians since introducing multiple proteins could have the same effect as a single protein if dysbiosis is suspected or there is an undiscovered allergen.

Feeding a rotational diet (or home cooked diet) requires that pet owners assure that their pet is receiving the correct balance and amount of nutrients and vitamins as outlined by standards established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles.  This increases the complexity for pet owners from pouring the same cup of kibble into the dogs’ bowl every day to being aware of the differences in calorie and nutrients you are giving with each rotation change.

Make sure the right number of calories are allocated across all rotations and feed based on your pet’s health, weight and activity level vs package labeling. Consult with your vet about the right number of calories your pet needs. Look for the calorie count on the label such as “ 3,084 kcal/kg.” Here is a helpful pet calorie requirement calculator from Ohio State University.

To simplify things, try rotation through the same manufactures brand. For example, many brands have kibble, freeze dried, frozen raw and shelf-stable wet food in a wide variety of proteins.

Buy smaller food quantities and the freshest “use by” dates. Keep uneaten food stored in airtight containers and out of sunlight to avoid any degradation of nutrients or spoilage.

Make sure that you include treats and any table food in the overall ingredient and calorie needs.

Non-meat proteins are often included especially in kibble to increase the overall protein content such as chick pea, pea protein, potato starch. Try to stay consistent and limit the various types of vegetable proteins as well as these can also have potential allergic reactions.

Many brands may include the desired proteins in their recipes, but the brands listed below are generally exclusive protein types rather than multiple protein types unless the recipe indicates an intended blend of proteins.