Pinpoint Health Problems With Elimination Diets for Dogs

Figuring out your dog's food allergy is not a quick or easy process, but the health benefits and peace of mind are worth it.

Published March 22, 2023
woman feeding her dog in the kitchen

An elimination diet is a diagnostic tool that can help determine if your dog's symptoms are caused by food allergies. It is not a quick fix, but it can be a helpful way to identify the trigger for your dog's symptoms. You can try to do an elimination diet on our own, and our guide will help get you started. However, in most cases, it is a very good idea to work with your veterinarian or canine nutritionist while you undergo this type of test for your pup.

What Is an Elimination Diet?

dachshund eating food out of bowl

If your dog has an allergy, feeding a dog an elimination diet is probably the best way to determine if food intolerances are causing your pet's symptoms. An exclusionary diet, or elimination diet, involves removing common allergenic foods from the diet of a pet with suspected food allergies and then reintroducing them one at a time to see which ones cause a reaction.

The process can be difficult, but it can also give you peace of mind that you have found the culprit if your dog improves on the novel food. However, if your dog continues to have symptoms while eating only novel foods and no other foods, there may be another factor contributing to their problems.

Quick Tip

Talk to your vet if you want to start an elimination diet. Their guidance and help with evaluating your dog's symptoms is invaluable

The Difficulty With Elimination Diets

The whole process of dealing with your dog's food allergy can be frustrating. Many dog owners feed dry kibble, and there's no easy way to eliminate a single ingredient without switching out the food in the first place. To even get started, you need to plan what you'll feed during the elimination diet. The best option is to pick one protein and one carbohydrate - for example, beef and rice - and mix these in equal amounts, half and half, for the diet's duration.

In most cases, you'll need to prepare the food for your dog yourself. Also, don't switch your dog onto their new diet right away. Slowly transition your dog off their kibble over a weeklong period. Don't supplement your dog's diet or give your dog any treats after this transition period, so you can be sure they're only eating the two ingredients you're providing. This is a strict process, so make sure your dog only eats what you give them.

Quick Tip

For the elimination diet, you need to pick a "novel" protein - a meat or fish that your dog is not currently eating - and use this ingredient throughout the trial. Good novel protein sources include tilapia, pork, rabbit, or duck, mixed with a novel carbohydrate, such as oats, quinoa, or sweet potatoes.

Most Common Food Allergies

Food allergies are an abnormal reaction to a specific protein found in your dog's diet. The immune system overreacts to this protein and releases histamine and other chemicals that cause itching and inflammation in the skin, ears and gastrointestinal tract. The most common foods to trigger allergic reactions in dogs include:

  • Beef: One of the most common causes of dog food allergies, especially among large breeds like German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers.
  • Dairy products: Including milk, cheese and cottage cheese.
  • Wheat: Wheat flour, whole wheat breads and cereals are common allergens.
  • Chicken: The allergenic protein triggers an inflammatory response that results in itching, scratching and other symptoms of inflammation.
  • Corn: This is a dog food ingredient many dogs are allergic to, especially in large amounts.

Keep in mind that some dogs not only have food allergies, but also environmental allergies. If you have a pet that begins sneezing, itching, or scratching after eating certain foods, it could be an indication of an environmental allergy as well as a food allergy.

Fast Fact

Food allergies can cause itching and skin problems, while food intolerances are less common but still produce symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea.

Two Basic Aspects of Any Elimination Diet

Doing an elimination diet involves focusing on two aspects of controlling your dog's food intake. Start by consulting with your veterinarian before you begin.

  1. Elimination: Remove the food from your dog's diet for four to 12 weeks. Some dogs show improvement right away, but it's important to stick with the diet for the full 12 weeks to be sure. If there are multiple ingredients in the product, remove them all at once so that you can be sure that it was one of these ingredients that caused your dog's reaction.
  2. Reintroduction: After four to eight weeks without eating the suspected food, reintroduce it into their diet in small amounts and observe their behavior closely over several days. If no adverse reactions occur during this time period, then you can begin adding other foods back into their diet one at a time until they have eaten everything except those which caused problems previously.

Follow the elimination diet for the full 12 weeks. If you don't see improvement after this period, talk to your veterinarian. You may want to consider another treatment option. If you see improvement, continue with the elimination diet for up to 12 weeks before discontinuing it if there are still unresolved issues with your dog's stool or skin condition.

maltipoo puppy eating out of food bowl

Breaking the Steps Down

Follow this process closely for the full course of the test. Elimination diets are strict, and this is an essential step of trying this approach. If you cheat and give your dog treats, food scraps, or allow them to eat anything else, you're back at square one.

  • Step 1: Work with your veterinarian or nutritionist to develop a diet specific to your dog. After transitioning to your 50/50 diet, stick with this food for the duration, following your vet's guidance.
  • Step 2: Grab a journal and write down everything your dog consumes. Take note of your dog's symptoms, recording any improvements, and any also write down any digestion issues your dog has.
  • Step 3: After the 12 weeks are up, you can begin slowly adding simple ingredients - one at a time, no more than once a week or so - back into your homemade elimination diet recipe. Talk to your vet first, however, and continue to record everything in your food journal.
  • Step 4: Observe your dog for the next few weeks, and pay special attention to any recurrence of symptoms after you add another ingredient to their diet. If this happens, the last ingredient you added is probably causing the issue.

You should also write down any supplements or medications your dog takes. After this period, work with your veterinarian or nutritionist to determine what your dog can eat going forward. At this point, you're ready to craft a new diet for your dog - or switch them to a commercial limited-ingredient diet that doesn't contain the suspected allergens. Again, talk to your veterinarian before drawing any conclusions to make sure you're on the right track.

Using Raw Food for the Elimination Diet

When you're a raw feeder, you often create your dog's bowl. You add in the muscle meat, organ meat, fruits, vegetables, and any other item you may include, allowing you to remove specific items from your dog's diet. This can make an elimination diet feeding homemade raw much easier.

If you choose to transition to a raw diet due to your dog's food allergies and you wish to conduct an elimination trial, start out by feeding your dog a protein source they have never had before. This could be duck, bison, or another novel protein. If they appear to be doing well with the new protein source, continue feeding it for the next 12 weeks.

Then, introduce new protein sources one at a time. Each rotation should be at least three weeks in length, unless you discover a protein your dog's body doesn't agree with. If you find the protein your dog's body doesn't agree with, remove that protein source and return to a source you know is digested well.

This is an elimination diet, but that doesn't mean you should stick to just one protein source. You should still be rotating protein sources every three to four weeks for variety to fill nutritional gaps in your dog's diet. Take note of the proteins your dog does not tolerate and avoid those while feeding those that are easily digested.

Starting the Elimination Diet

The elimination diet is controversial and not recommended by all veterinary professionals. If your dog is experiencing food allergies or intolerances, talk to your veterinarian or nutritionist to determine the best path for your individual dog. As you can see, there are several ways to begin an elimination diet, but what works for one dog may not work for another.

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Pinpoint Health Problems With Elimination Diets for Dogs