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Limited Ingredient Dog Food: Is It Right For Your Dog?

By Jill Fanslau


Over the past 5 years, you may have noticed more and more “limited ingredient dog foods” filling your pet store’s shelves.


But when you flip the bag over or the can around, it’s difficult to tell how these products differ from your pup’s regular kibble. So we called Cathleen Enright, Ph.D., CEO of the Pet Food Institute (PFI) in Washington, D.C. to find out the exact definition of limited ingredient dog food.


What is Limited Ingredient Dog Food?


“There is no definition,” says Enright. “The application in different pet food recipes can vary.”


That means a limited ingredient dog food may have only one protein instead of multiple sources. For instance, it could have only chicken—or chicken meal or chicken byproduct—and no steak, fish, lamb, or beans. Or it may have only one carbohydrate or only one fat source.


It could also mean that there is a reduced number of actual ingredients compared to the company’s standard kibble products, Enright explains.


The new food formulas are the pet food industry’s response to a perceived concern from pet parents about sensitivities or allergies to specific foods over the past few years.


Many pet parents turn to limited ingredient or limited antigen dog food to combat symptoms—like itchy or flaky skin, a lackluster coat, poor hair growth, ear infections, weight gain, weight loss, hot spots, vomiting, or diarrhea—that they believe are caused by food allergies.


With so many different applications, however, it’s more than a little confusing for pet parents.


What to Look for in Limited Ingredient Dog Foods


According to Enright, the most important things you can look for on your limited ingredient dog food are the words “complete and balanced.” The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requires that food labeled as such “have the total nutrition to sustain your pet at his given life stage,” she says.


Translation: The food—even if it’s a limited ingredient formula—has the proper mix of protein, fat, carbs, and the 23 essential vitamins and minerals for a dog’s health, as determined by AAFCO.


“If it has those words, you don’t have to feel guilty that you’ve lost key nutrients,” Enright says. “Choose one that your dog loves, that’s palatable, and from a brand you trust.” (If you’re looking for a place to start, see PFI’s list of members, who all follow AAFCO regulations.) 


Limited Ingredient Dog Food: Is it Right For Your Pet?


With so many limited ingredient foods now filling the shelves, however, how do you know which product to choose?


Is it corn or soy that’s causing your dog’s skin to itch? Will a formula with canola oil instead of avocado oil fix your pet’s stomach issues? Where do you even start?


Talk to your vet, says Enright. He or she can help you determine what the actual ingredient is that may be causing your pet’s sensitivity or allergy—if there is one at all.


Less than 10 percent of dogs with allergies are allergic to food, says Dr. Laura Weis, DVM, owner of Doylestown Veterinary Hospital. And of those, about 95 percent of the cases present an allergy to protein—not carbs.


For the most part, when your dog suffers from skin or gastrointestinal tract issues, it’s probably due to inflammation or intolerance to a commercial diet, not an actual food allergy.


It’s important to work with a veterinarian to determine what commercial diet is best for your pet before making a switch.


Do Dogs Really Need Limited Ingredient Diets?


Dogs with no medical issues don’t need to be on a limited-ingredient diet, says Weis. “A healthy dog with a well functioning GI tract should be able to eat all kinds of stuff,” she explains.


If you believe your dog suffers from an actual food allergy, ask your veterinarian about a food trial. In elimination trials certain foods are taken out of a dog’s diet and then added back in to try to pinpoint the cause of the allergy. During an elimination trial, specially formulated hypoallergenic or low antigen diets are prescribed for a period of at least 12 weeks. During this time, no other food, treats or flavored medications can be given. Then, potential allergens are re-introduced, one at a time.


Elimination diets are difficult to adhere to, but they can be a lifesaver, says Weis. But be sure to work with a veterinarian or certified pet nutritionist during the trial.


Why not do your own modified food trial at home with the limited ingredient kibbles at your grocery store?


Unless you’re getting a prescription diet that is just one protein and one carbohydrate source, “it’s extremely difficult to get a limited antigen diet at the store,” says Weis.


Commercial cans and bags often actually contain more than the couple ingredients listed on the front of the package, says Weis. And that makes it impossible to clear your dog’s immune system and to pinpoint exactly what ingredient is causing his symptoms.


So talk to your vet about the best course of action for your dog—whether it be a food trial or supplementing his kibble with other nutrient-dense ingredients. And make sure to speak with your vet before making the switch over to a limited ingredient dog food. Your vet will know what’s best for your dog’s overall health and wellness.


Image:  via Shutterstock


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