Food vs environmental dog allergies: signs, symptoms and how to get a diagnosis

sneezing dog
(Image credit: Getty)

Knowing the difference between food vs environmental dog allergies will help you determine the best way to help your pup if they’re showing signs of an allergy. While the majority of dogs won’t suffer from an allergy in their lifetime, there is an unfortunate percentage that will develop either a food or environmental allergy. Some breeds are more predisposed to this than others, but allergies can be seen in any type of dog making the best dog food for allergies in high demand.

Whether you’ve seen your dog obsessively lick at its paws, scratch its belly more often than it should, or even experience long-term gastrointestinal problems, it might be that they’ve developed an allergy. We’ve rounded up everything you need to know, from what symptoms you might see to how you can get an allergy diagnosed. However, the best person to ask about your dog’s health will always be your veterinarian, so we’d recommend a vet visit if you’re concerned about your pup. If you're wondering how to help a dog with allergies, this feature has the answers you need. 

Food vs environmental dog allergies: What are they? 

Just like humans, dogs can develop an exaggerated immune response to something that shouldn’t actually trigger one, whether that’s a type of food that they’re eating or something in their environment. However, allergies can affect dogs differently than humans. For example, humans with an allergy to pollen or dust might develop respiratory symptoms, such as sneezing or runny noses. However, a dog with an allergy is much more likely to experience skin problems instead, including itchy skin, ear infections, hair loss, hives, face rubbing, and more. 

One of the main differences between food vs environmental dog allergies is that food allergies can also cause gastrointestinal issues as well. With the rise in popularity of grain-free dog food, many dog owners assume that if a dog is allergic to their food, it’s because of the presence of rice, wheat, or other fillers. However, the most common food allergen is actually chicken. In fact, if your dog is allergic to their food, it’s overwhelmingly likely to be caused by the protein rather than the filler. 

The MSD Veterinary Manual states that certain dog breeds have a higher chance of developing an environmental dog allergy than others. These include “Chinese Shar-Peis, Wirehaired Fox Terriers, Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Boxers, Boston Terriers, Labrador Retrievers, Lhasa Apsos, Scottish Terriers, Shih Tzus, and West Highland White Terriers”. Meanwhile, if you own a “Labrador Retriever, West Highland White Terrier, or Cocker Spaniel”, then there may be an increased risk that your dog could develop a food allergy. 

scratching dog

(Image credit: Getty)

Food vs environmental dog allergies: Symptoms 

We spoke to veterinarian Jo Woodnutt about the type of symptoms you could expect to see in food vs environmental dog allergies. She said, “Environmental allergies (‘atopy’) and food allergies are similar in dogs and have many of the same symptoms. In both, you can expect to see itchy skin (especially paws), sore, itchy, and infected ears, and increased skin infections. 

“Although dogs with food allergies sometimes have soft stools, abdominal discomfort, and other signs of IBD, this is not the case for all dogs. This means it’s very hard to distinguish between these allergies on signs alone, and some dogs will have both food allergies and atopy, meaning your vet will recommend you test for both regardless of their symptoms.”

We’ve put together a non-exhaustive list of potential allergy symptoms to help you determine whether you think your dog might have developed an allergy. If your dog is displaying any of these symptoms, we’d recommend taking them to the vet as soon as possible.

Food vs environmental dog allergies: Diagnosis

Unfortunately, as is also the case with human allergies, diagnosing your dog’s allergy isn’t always simple. It’ll likely take you at least a few months to figure out what the root cause of the issue is, so it’s time to don your detective hat! 

If you’re wondering what’s the best way to determine whether your dog is allergic to their food, then Jo advises that an elimination diet is the answer. “The only way to test for a food allergy is to do an elimination diet trial. Although blood, fur, and saliva tests are available, these are inaccurate for food allergies. Your dog will need to eat a novel protein diet - a food with a protein your dog has never tried before. 

“Unfortunately, the use of ‘meat and animal derivatives’ on ingredient labels and contamination with other proteins in the factory means it’s hard to be sure of a protein your dog has never contacted before. In these cases, a hydrolyzed protein diet is best. These diets have proteins that are too small for the body to recognize as allergens.

To be accurate, your dog must not eat anything other than their diet for the duration of the trial. This means no treats, tidbits, or snuffling something on a walk. You will need to talk to everyone in the family and your dog walkers and groomers to make sure everybody is on board.”

However, what if you think your dog has an environmental allergy? How can you determine what’s causing the issue? Jo says that “Unfortunately, it’s not possible to do an elimination trial for environmental allergens. These allergens are invisible and present everywhere - avoiding grass pollen, dust mites, or common weeds that sit on every park and lawn just isn’t practical.”

However, while it might be more difficult to determine the cause of an environmental allergy, you can still take notice of when your dog has a flare-up. Does it occur when there’s a high pollen count? Or after you’ve done a spot of dusting? See if you can find potential patterns and this might help you unveil the culprit of your dog’s allergy. 

For more on this, found out everything you need to know about dog food allergy tests or learn to spot the signs of skin allergies in dogs

Louise Carey

Louise Carey is a freelance writer and the Editor of sister website Top Ten Reviews. She has been working in publishing for seven years, contributing to publications including The Independent, TechRadar, Digital Camera World and more. As the proud pet parent of a reactive border collie with a food allergy, it’s been necessary for Louise to explore a variety of fun and exciting ways to enrich an energetic dog that can’t always go on walks. She’s passionate about sharing the information she’s learned to help other pet owners as well.