Hypoallergenic Dog Foods - The Vet's Buying Guide

Most of us are already familiar with hypoallergenic products for humans – cosmetics, shampoos, and the like, but how much do you know about hypoallergenic dog foods?

What exactly is a hypoallergenic diet, when is it needed, how can it help dogs with certain health conditions, and finally, how do you pick the right type of hypoallergenic dog food?

In my practice, I often encounter owners who look to switch their dogs to a hypoallergenic diet due to various issues.

I have previously written about the science of hypoallergenic dog foods and their effectiveness in this article, which I recommend reading to understand better how these diets work.

The article below will explain what you need to know about real hypoallergenic dog foods, what makes them hypoallergenic, and hydrolyzed protein dog food diets.

Whether it's something you need and how to shop for the best brand and avoid any “fake” hypoallergenic dog foods (of which there are several).

Hypoallergenic Dog Foods 101

We may put on the main reasons dogs a hypoallergenic dog food diet can be lumped into something called an “adverse food reaction.”

This can either mean an allergy that causes the dog to erupt in skin lesions, ear infections, or gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea or vomiting.

Dogs with primary gastrointestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD) can often suffer from adverse food reactions.


Dog with allergies looking at beef steaksWhat are allergies in dogs?

Allergies happen when the dog's immune system overreacts to an otherwise harmless substance.

Many species, including dogs, can experience adverse allergic reactions.

The immune system is programmed to recognize and eliminate threats to the body, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

When allergies occur, the dog's body is essentially tricked into thinking that a harmless substance is a threat.

The fallout causes uncomfortable inflammation and subsequent disease.

Pollen, mold spores, and even dust mite dander are common allergens (called antigens) that are otherwise harmless, but some pets' immune systems don’t see it that way.

Food allergies in dogs occur most commonly due to an overreaction to specific animal source proteins or carbohydrates in the diet.1

However, food intolerance in dogs that leads to an adverse food reaction is more common than a true food allergy.

Only about 10-15% of dogs develop a true food allergy. The most common antigens in dog food include proteins from chicken, beef, soy, dairy, and egg.1

If a dog develops an allergy to a carbohydrate source, such as wheat, that means they are allergic to the protein component of the wheat.

Why certain bodies develop allergies and others don’t remains a medical mystery.

However, we know we can reduce the likelihood of pets having these uncomfortable and dangerous reactions by feeding specific hypoallergenic dog food diets.

Dog food allergies or adverse food reactions are often diagnosed by what is called an elimination diet.

In these “diet trials,” the dog is fed either a hypoallergenic dog food brand or a single-source protein/carbohydrate diet for 6-8 weeks.

An adverse food reaction can be diagnosed if the dog develops symptoms after returning to its normal diet.

Dogs diagnosed with adverse food reactions often must eat a hypoallergenic diet for the rest of their lives.

This isn't a big deal, but it may be more costly to a pet owner since some hypoallergenic dog food brands are more expensive.

How can hypoallergenic dog foods help my dog?

Switching to an appropriate hypoallergenic diet will eliminate most or all allergy symptoms in your dog. This may take a little bit of trial and error.

Over time, hypoallergenic dog foods can help manage your dog’s chronic itchy skin or ears, making them overall more comfortable.

It can also reduce their dependence on antihistamines, steroids, and antibiotics.

Dogs with chronic gastrointestinal problems can experience more firm stools and better weight maintenance.

We will explain how to shop for the best hypoallergenic dog food brand for your dog.

But if you are concerned about your pet or are interested in this diet, please consult your veterinarian for details beforehand.

When is dog food considered “hypoallergenic?”

Hypoallergenic means below allergenic.

When it comes to hypoallergenic dog foods, this term basically means that the structure of the potential allergen in that specific dog food recipe is so small that your dog's immune system can’t detect it.

Several diets on the market fall into the “hypoallergenic” category.

They have all hydrolyzed protein diets, which makes the potential offending protein structure very small and much less likely to evoke a reaction from the dog.

This is what hydrolyzed protein looks like:

What is hydrolyzed protein dog food

Even though it's marketed differently, veterinary experts prefer to call these hydrolyzed diets instead of referring to them as hypoallergenic dog foods.

According to Dr. Joe Bartges, a board-certified veterinary internist and nutritionist, proteins are hydrolyzed for hypoallergenic dog foods because that disrupts protein structure in the food formula.

That removes any existing allergenic epitopes and allergens. This way, it prevents the dog's body from recognizing that protein.

Proteins with molecular weights of over 18,000 daltons are well-known to be the most antigenic.

Thus modification of proteins to compounds having lower molecular weight may be of benefit.

When the average weight of the protein molecule is reduced to less than 18,000 daltons, that protein source is hypoallergenic.2

Even with the adjustments, all hypoallergenic dog foods are well-balanced and nutritionally complete for dogs to consume.

Furthermore, consuming protein hydrolysates results in a quicker absorption of amino acids compared to whole proteins' absorption rate.

ALSO READ: Ask a Vet – Does Hypoallergenic Food Really Works?

Hypoallergenic Dog Food – A Catch-All Buzzword

As a pet owner, you must be careful when shopping for hypoallergenic dog foods, as this term is often misused.

Limited-ingredient diets are not necessarily hypoallergenic.

Sometimes, it may be necessary to consider a prescription hydrolyzed hypoallergenic dog food instead of an over-the-counter limited-ingredient diet.

It's less likely to be contaminated with allergens. Unfortunately, those are likely to be more expensive.

In a recent study, 12 commercial dog food products were tested for DNA of animal origin using PCR testing.4

The DNA included chicken, turkey, beef, mutton, and pork. In 9 of 10 over-the-counter (non-prescription) limited-ingredient dog food diets, DNA of one or more animal species other than what was declared on the label was found.

The most common “contaminants” were beef and pork.

Two prescription hydrolyzed diets tested in the study only contained DNA of the animal declared on the label.

Hydrolyzed diets provide short- and long-term, balanced nutrition for adult and senior dogs.

Most commonly vet-recommended hypoallergenic dog foods are available from the three largest prescription diet companies that spend the most on research and science-based recipe formulations: Royal Canin, Hill’s Science Diet, and Purina.

Hydrolyzed protein dog food diet for allergies

All these diets are very similar, so you may often benefit more by simply choosing the cheap hypoallergenic dog food brand from either of these manufacturers.

However, discussing with a vet is essential.

If your veterinarian recommends one over the other, it is most likely due to geographical availability and personal clinical experience using the diet with other dogs.

Here are some examples of vet-recommended hypoallergenic dog foods:

If your dog has multiple health issues, such as food intolerance and urinary tract problems like struvite bladder stones, it is possible to feed a diet that supports food sensitivities and urinary health.

There are several recipes available, but here's one vet recommended:

Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Multicare – Urinary and Hydrolyzed Protein

Ingredients include brewer’s yeast and hydrolyzed soy protein.

This diet also includes Royal Canin’s Urinary SO Index, which promotes a urinary environment unfavorable to the development of struvite and calcium oxalate crystals.

Royal Canin Canine Urinary SO + Hydrolyzed Protein...
23 Reviews

If your pooch is not a big fan of dry kibble, don’t despair.

Royal Canin and Hill’s Science Diet provide canned versions of their hydrolyzed diets, particularly those mentioned above.

What About Hypoallergenic Dog Treats?

If your dog has now switched to hypoallergenic dog foods, complimentary hydrolyzed protein treats are also available and recommended.

If you feed one particular hydrolyzed diet brand, stick with one from the same company.

For example, if you feed Royal Canin Hydrolyzed Protein PS food, select Royal Canin’s hydrolyzed protein hypoallergenic dog treats.

Remember to stick with a hydrolyzed protein – don’t be tempted to switch to something else like venison or salmon, even if the label says it's “hypoallergenic.”

Vet recommended hypoallergenic dog treats that are commonly available:

Semi-Homemade Hypoallergenic Dog Treats

If hypoallergenic dog treats are unavailable or too expensive, you can try making your own.

Top Dog Tips has a large database of homemade dog treat recipes.

But you can easily do this by purchasing a complimentary hydrolyzed protein hypoallergenic canned dog food diet.

For example, if you already switched your pooch to hypoallergenic dog foods, and now he eats Hill’s z/d dry, you can purchase a can or a bag of Hill’s z/d formula and make treats out of it.

The process is simple:

Roll out the canned dog food into a thin layer using your hands. Cut out the canned food into shapes of your choice. Stars, small circles, or dog bones.

Using a food dehydrator or an oven at low temperatures (200 F or 93 C), bake the treats on parchment paper for 1 to 2 hours.

Cooking time depends on the size and thickness of the treat.

Check on them every 30 minutes until they are dry and crunchy. Store in a zip-top bag in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

RECIPE: Hypoallergenic Homemade Dog Food

Hypoallergenic Dog Foods: The Bottom Line

Real hypoallergenic dog foods made with hydrolyzed proteins can make a big difference for certain dogs.

Keep in mind that these diets are very similar across the board, and sometimes, it's not worth paying extra for a more expensive brand.

That said, remember that some hypoallergenic dog foods are also not what they seem to be.

If your dog is very strongly allergic to chicken, it may be wisest to select a hydrolyzed soy protein diet instead of a chicken-based diet.

Some diets may be available in your area while others won't, and your veterinarian may let you know about this.

The reason is that it's more expensive for the company to stock hypoallergenic dog foods everywhere since they're not very popular to buy.

Many veterinarians will recommend one brand over another based on their personal clinical experience.

If your veterinarian has had good results using a particular brand, consider giving it a try, but don't hesitate to get a second or third opinion either.

  1. Datz, C. Nutritional Management of Allergic Dermatoses. ABVP Proceedings. 2015.
  2. Bartges, J. Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Nutrition in the Pathogenesis and Management. ACVIM Proceedings. 2016.
  3. Rosser, E. Update on Diagnosing and Treating Food Allergies in Dogs. Central Veterinary Conference Proceedings. 2013.
  4. Horvath-Ungerboeck, Windmann, Handl, et al., Detection of DNA from undeclared animal species in commercial elimination diets for dogs using PCR. Vet Dermatol. August 2017:28(4):373-e86.
  5. Cave NJ. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2006;36(6):1251.
  6. Puigdemont A, et alAm J Vet Res. 2006;67(3):484.
  7. Lan A, et alInflamm Bowel Dis. 2015;21(1):198.

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The Veterinarian's Guide on Shopping for Hypoallergenic Dog Foods

In the last 8 years, Dr. Shores has worked as a clinical veterinarian for dogs, cats, small mammals and non-human primates as well as a writer on the subject of pet health. Her passion is breaking down the intricacies of proper dog health care and dog nutrition.