Dog Foods Aren’t Equal – Even Though They Appear to Be

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Nov. 6, 2015

Regular readers of this blog know that my dog Apollo has severe inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). As is suggested by its name, the condition is associated with abnormal inflammation within the gastrointestinal tract.

In health, the gut is protected from all that passes through by multiple defense mechanisms (mucus barriers, channels that selectively admit only certain substances, etc.). When these defenses malfunction, antigens (things that stimulate the immune system) are absorbed by the lining of the intestines. The body responds with inflammation, which increases the “leakiness” of the intestinal wall, resulting in more inflammation.

Some combination of immune dysfunction, stress, genetics, and antigenic stimulation (e.g., food allergies, bacterial overgrowth, metabolic disease, food intolerance, parasites, etc.) is involved in IBD. Often a pet’s symptoms are mild and/or intermittent to begin with but progress with time.

The first step in treating IBD is to find a diet that does not contain the antigens (or contains as few as possible) that trigger gut inflammation in that individual. If dietary modifications do not adequately control a pet’s symptoms, medications that suppress the immune system will be necessary.

Which brings me back to Apollo. For years, his IBD has been well controlled as long as he only eats a commercially prepared, hydrolyzed diet. Through hydrolyzation, proteins are broken down into such tiny fragments that they evade detection by the immune system. This particular food contains hydrolyzed soy, a simple carbohydrate source, some vegetable oils for fat, and a long list of vitamins and minerals.

The problem is, Apollo really doesn’t like it, and I find the ingredient list a little scary (it reads more like a high school chemistry experiment than a recipe).

But hydrolyzed diets are becoming increasingly popular because they have proven to be effective in managing a variety of diet-responsive diseases. As a result, the number of formulations owners and veterinarians can pick from is increasing.

A few months ago, I switched Apollo to a new hydrolyzed diet made by the same company as the one he’s always eaten, but this food also contains hydrolyzed chicken and hydrolyzed chicken liver. In theory, Apollo shouldn’t react to these new protein sources since they are hydrolyzed, but boy did he ever! Within just a week or so, he was vomiting, had diarrhea, and wasn’t eating. I switched him back to his old food and he quickly returned to normal.

Not to be discouraged, last week I tried Apollo on yet another hydrolyzed food. This one scared me a bit too, but not for the same reasons that made me wary of his original diet. This ingredient list looked too “normal” to be truly hypoallergenic. Hydrolyzed salmon is the first ingredient, and further down the list you’ll find things like potatoes, peas, pumpkin, fish oil, blueberries, and cranberries. This diet couldn’t possibly work, could it?

So far so good.

At first, the food gave Apollo WICKED gas. We’re talking “call the fire department the house is about to explode”-type gas, but that is fading (thankfully). His stools are formed, we’ve seen no vomiting, and Apollo absolutely loves the food’s taste – so much so that he’s starting to annoy us with his requests for extra meals throughout the day.

I can’t yet say that this diet will work for Apollo in the long run, but if nothing else, this experience has reminded me that reading labels only gets you so far. What’s most important is how an individual pet responds to a particular food.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health