Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.
Does My Dog Have a Chicken Allergy?
"My husband just brought me my fourth Maltese. She's four months old and scratches herself all the time. I took my baby girl to the vet, and even though we feed her good organic dog food, the vet says she's allergic to chicken. I'm at a loss because in order to get organic dog food for her, we have to order from the United States and it takes four months to get here. Is she really allergic to chicken?" —Sheba
Diagnosing Food Allergies in Dogs
Your dog cannot be diagnosed with a chicken allergy via a physical exam or any sort of lab test performed by your veterinarian. (1) The only way to tell if your dog is allergic to chicken (or beef, gluten, or any other food) is with an elimination diet, but you should try other remedies before taking this route.
Elimination Diet for Dogs
Elimination diets work the same way for dogs that they do for people. If you want to find out if your dog is allergic to certain types of food, you need to put them on a diet with a novel protein—not something that they have eaten in the past—for about two months. There are many recipes for duck, rabbit, venison, ostrich, etc. You will need to choose based on what you have available.
If the itching goes away, "challenge" your dog with chicken to see if the itching comes back. If it does, she likely has an allergy to chicken (and perhaps other poultry as well).
Why Do Puppies Itch?
- Flea Allergies: Allergies to fleas are the most common cause of itching in dogs. Dogs that are allergic will start itching excessively after even one flea bite. Before even starting a hypoallergenic diet, a dog should be put on prescription flea control and watched for any changes.
- Inhalant Allergies: Some dogs have summer allergies to pollens, but inside dogs can have allergies to dust mites, molds, and other things in the home.
- Food Allergies: Only about 1% of all dogs probably have food allergies, but 40% of them are German Shepherds, West Highland White Terriers, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers. You also did not mention an ear infection, vomiting, or diarrhea. 93% of dogs with food allergies will have diarrhea. (2)
- Mites: Both sarcoptic and demodectic mange will cause itching, but usually with patches of hair loss.
- Dry Skin: If she has flaking, dandruff, or large flakes, she may just be itching due to dry skin. Dry skin is a common cause of itching and can be taken care of at home without medications.
- Infection: Yeast or bacterial infections can cause your pup to itch.
- Contact Allergies: Just like with people, dogs can experience allergic reactions when certain substances (anything from certain soaps and fabrics to grass—yikes!) touch their skin.
How to Relieve Your Puppy's Itching
I recommend taking care of the itching first to make your dog more comfortable and then looking at the most likely causes. Here are a few ways to reduce your dog's itchiness in the meantime.
Get Prescription Flea Control
Even if you never see a flea, an allergic dog will scratch excessively after a single bite. You will need to talk to your local veterinarian to find out the most effective flea control available in your area.
Try Medicated Baths
A dog with itching and no skin lesions or ear infection may respond to a medicated bath with colloidal oatmeal. Be sure to follow the instructions on how to give a medicated bath.
Many moisturizers are available at pet stores, but one of the best is something that you may already have at home—coconut oil. It has high levels of vitamins and antioxidants, and in addition to moisturizing the skin, it also improves the quality of the skin for the dog's beneficial bacteria. (3)
Be sure to apply it after a bath, but do it outside since your dog will likely roll around on your floor afterwards and stain your carpet.
These medications are often not enough for a dog with very itchy skin, but they can help a lot in mild cases. It is a good idea to try antihistamines before putting the dog on a special diet.
Decrease Allergens in the Environment
Here are some things you can do to reduce potential allergens and keep your dog more comfortable at home.
Try a Novel Protein Diet
If the itching pattern and other symptoms support a food allergy, try a novel protein diet. This should not be a commercial dog food even if it does not contain chicken. For the two months, your dog is on this diet, you can make it up at home.
Dogs that itch and scratch excessively may respond to Cytopoint, an antibody injection that makes some dogs itch less. There are also medications that reduce itching by suppressing the immune system, but you should try the other suggestions first and also figure out if this is a seasonal or year-round problem.
Itching is often difficult to diagnose, and if your dog does have allergies, this will take some effort to treat. Please look into flea control, dry skin, shampoos, and moisturizers before starting a novel protein diet.
(1) Mueller RS, Olivry T. Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (4): can we diagnose adverse food reactions in dogs and cats with in vivo or in vitro tests? BMC Vet Res. 2017 Aug 30;13(1):275. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28854915/
(2) Valentine B. Review of critically appraised topics on adverse food reactions of companion animals. Can Vet J. 2020 May;61(5):537-539. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7156131/
(3) Shilling M, Matt L, Rubin E, Visitacion MP, Haller NA, Grey SF, Woolverton CJ. Antimicrobial effects of virgin coconut oil and its medium-chain fatty acids on Clostridium difficile. J Med Food. 2013 Dec;16(12):1079-85. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24328700/
This article is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from your veterinarian. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Mark dos Anjos DVM