Most people don’t think of the skin as an “organ,” but it is. Your dog’s skin is the largest organ in his body, making up 12-24 percent of his body weight, depending on his size. So, it’s not too surprising that health problems – especially food sensitivities and allergies – often manifest with skin problems.
Likewise, about 70 percent of your dog’s immune system is based in his gut or gastrointestinal tract. Keeping the immune system healthy with appropriate nutrition for your dog is essential for his overall health. However, dogs are individuals so some dogs can have trouble with ordinary commercial dog food diets. Problems can show up as gas, bloating, diarrhea, itchy skin, and other signs of having food sensitivities and food allergies. You could be feeding your dog a highly-rated, expensive dog food with good quality ingredients but if his immune system has a negative reaction to some of the ingredients in the food, he won’t be healthy. (Some of these ideas are related to the new field of nutrigenomics – applying the study of genetics and epigenetics to nutrition. Read Jean Dodds, DVM’s article here.)
Sensitive skin and stomach dog foods today
Larger pet food companies like Hill’s and Purina have been making sensitive skin and stomach dog foods for decades. These foods were one of the early alternatives to basic dog foods if your dog had problems eating ordinary commercial foods. Today many companies, large and small, make foods that could be described as “sensitive,” even if they are not labeled as such. Organic and non-GMO foods, limited ingredient diets (“L.I.D.”), veterinary/prescription foods, many grain free foods, and foods with novel proteins fall into these categories today. Whether a food is suitable for your dog depends on your dog’s particular sensitivities and the ingredients in the food. Reading labels can help you narrow your search for a good sensitive skin and stomach food for your dog but it’s often a case of trial and error to find the food that works best for your dog.
Skin problems and allergies
Skin problems are not always due to allergies, of course. They can also be caused by a poor immune system or by parasites of some kind (worms, fleas, bacterial organisms, etc.). Feeding a dog food that is deficient or that contains excesses of some nutrients can also cause skin and coat problems. Dogs can also have non-food allergies such as seasonal allergies to pollen and grass, dust mites, and fleas. These allergies are actually more common in dogs than food allergies so this is something to consider if your dog is exhibiting skin problems. Some dogs can have skin problems for non-allergy reasons. For example, white dogs with pink skin can have more sensitive skin. Hairless dogs may have more sensitive skin.
Food allergies are less common (about 10 percent of the allergies seen in dogs – they are much less common than most people think) but that is small comfort if your dog is suffering and you can’t find a suitable food for him to eat. Dogs can develop an allergy at any time in their lives, from about six months into old age. So even if your dog has eaten a food all of his life, he can suddenly become allergic to it one day. Dogs have to encounter an allergen more than once, in fact, before they develop a response to it. You’re probably seen the list of common food allergens for dogs before, but here they are: beef, dairy products, chicken, lamb, fish, chicken eggs, corn, wheat, and soy. It’s no accident that these are also some of the most common dog food ingredients. The more canines come in contact with ingredients, the more the species develops allergies to them, which is to be expected. They can’t develop allergies to ingredients they don’t encounter. None of these items are “bad” ingredients. If dogs never encountered fish or chicken, they would not be common allergens today. At one time lamb was considered a novel protein but it is now such a common ingredient that some dogs are allergic to it. Peas are so common in grain free dog foods today that some dogs are starting to be diagnosed with pea allergies.
Many of the sensitive skin and stomach dog foods today (including L.I.D. foods, and others) avoid using the most common dog food allergens. Turkey is a common meat protein found in these foods. Some of them do use lamb. Salmon is also a common protein (even though fish appears as a common allergen). It’s a good source of marine omega 3 fatty acid, which is known to be good for the skin and coat. As a whole, these meat proteins are considered to be less inflammatory than beef and less likely to cause an allergic reaction than chicken. Most of these foods also avoid using corn, wheat, and soy. The exception are the veterinary/prescription diets which sometimes use corn or wheat, but these foods are always hard to rate. Some foods use egg as a protein source. Egg is an animal protein, even though it’s not a meat protein. Some dogs are allergic to chicken eggs but eggs can be a good alternative protein source for some dogs, especially coupled with another safe meat protein such as venison or rabbit.
Foods for sensitive skin and digestion often contain omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and linoleic acid since these fats are considered to be good for the skin. They may also contain Vitamin E. And they may also contain extra fiber to be gentle on the dog’s stomach and digestion.
Whether your dog has sensitive skin or sensitive stomach/digestion, or both, it’s important to try to avoid foods and ingredients that trigger his reactions. This isn’t always easy to do, especially considering the fact that dogs can develop more allergies and sensitivities after they develop one allergy. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out which ingredient is causing your dog’s problem but sometimes it’s not. Rather than buy a dozen different kinds of food that your dog can’t eat while you try to guess the ingredient, we suggest talking to your veterinarian and setting up an elimination diet and food trials so you can deterimine which ingredient(s) bother your dog. There are tests to determine allergies in dogs but they have been shown to be highly unreliable. The elimination diet remains the best way to find out what your dog is allergic or sensitive to.
Sensitive skin and digestion foods may be a little more expensive than ordinary dog foods but most of them have good quality ingredients. Some of them – especially the L.I.D. foods – are rather low in protein, so this is something to watch when you are reading labels. Make sure you avoid foods with artificial colors, preservatives, flavors, and other ingredients that could be damaging to your dog’s immune system. You should be able to find some good foods in this category if your dog has problems with sensitive skin and/or stomach issues. If your dog has more extreme problems, you may need to look at veterinary/prescription dog foods such as hypoallergenic foods.