Food allergies are no fun for anyone...and that goes for your dog, too! Whether you know your pet is allergic to certain ingredients or suspect a food intolerance, mealtime can be hard to manage. But even if you’ve had to eliminate some foods from your dog’s mealtime rotation, that doesn’t mean you can’t feed your sensitive dog delicious treats. Homemade allergen-free dog treats are a fun, safe way to reward your pooch despite their dietary limitations.
If that sounds like a lot of work, think again. DIY allergen-free dog treats are surprisingly super easy and safe to make at home. We’ll walk you through the process, step-by-step. And since you control the ingredients, you can customize recipes to ensure that they won’t trigger itching, scratching, or gastrointestinal misery for your dog.
Get ready to learn all about food allergies and intolerance in dogs, so you can understand just how much your DIY allergy-free dog treats can help!
Food allergy vs. sensitivity: How to tell the difference in dogs
There are many reasons dogs visit the veterinarian, and skin conditions are quite often among the top three. Skin allergies and food reactions can be frustrating for dogs and pet parents alike because there isn’t one simple test to figure things out.
According to the Clinical Nutrition Team at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, food allergies happen when a dog’s immune system misidentifies a protein within food as an invader. As a result, the dog’s body mounts an immune response and an allergic reaction occurs.
“A food allergy involves an immune system response where the body produces antibodies to a component of the food. Typically, multiple organ systems, including the digestive tract, skin, and organs governing other parts of the body, can be mildly to severely affected,” says veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist, Dr. Patrick Mahaney.
Though often confused for food allergies, food intolerance does not involve an immune system response and is generally localized to the digestive tract, Mahaney says. He prefers the term ‘food intolerance’ over ‘food sensitivity’ since the latter is broadly applied to just about any stomach upset, whether prompted by a specific ingredient or not.
The causes of true food allergies are pretty straightforward. Food allergies develop when a dog’s immune system misidentifies an ingredient in their food as harmful and releases antibodies to counter the threat. Some pet parents might anticipate an allergic reaction after switching to a new dog food. But allergies often develop after prolonged exposure to one type of food. Mahaney notes that feeding your dog the same carbohydrate source, protein, food brand, or food format can be potential triggers.
There’s reason to believe some dogs may be genetically predisposed to food allergies, as well. That’s evidenced by the fact that a variety of dogs can eat the same foods, in the same quantities, and with the same frequency. Yet only one might develop a food allergy while the others do not.
If you suspect your dog may have a food allergy or sensitivity, look for patterns in symptoms that arise after your pet eats certain carbohydrates or proteins, says Mahaney. Those symptoms may include:
- Digestive tract upset
- Reduced appetite
- Stool abnormalities
- Skin inflammation
- Ear inflammation
More subtle signs of a food allergy include aggression, hyperactivity, and weight loss.
Top food allergens for dogs
If you notice signs of food allergies or food sensitivities in your pet, always discuss your concerns with your veterinarian. Many pet parents also seek the expertise of a veterinary dermatologist or internal medicine specialist to help identify the problem and treatment.
Some of the most common ingredients that trigger food allergies include many ingredients used in commercially available dog foods and treats. According to Mahaney, food allergies can flare up after prolonged exposure to ingredients such as:
Food intolerances, however, are caused by consuming certain ingredients in any dog food or treat like food additives (disulphide, monosodium glutamate [MSG], sulphites), spices, and others. Bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses consumed can also cause clinical signs of food intolerance, according to Mahaney.
“There are blood tests available that can yield information about food allergies, but based on input from my veterinary dermatology colleagues, such tests are not reliable indicators,” Mahaney relates. “If a pet parent suspects their dog is allergic or sensitive to something in their diet, most veterinary dermatologists recommend a food elimination trial to determine if the pet has a true food allergy.”
An elimination diet requires feeding your dog only one novel protein and possibly one novel carbohydrate for six to eight weeks. The term ‘novel’ means the dog has not previously consumed that particular item. No other proteins are fed during the trial, and the dog is monitored for any sign of problems such as digestive tract upset, skin or ear issues, or other health complications.
When the dogs achieve success with a novel protein diet, the vet may recommend re-introducing other single proteins, says Mahaney. In this way, it can be determined if a digestive tract or dermatologic response appears after other proteins are added to the diet.
Yummy DIY Sweet Potato Pie Allergy-Free Dog Treats
Jodi Chick is a baker, crafter, and dog mom extraordinaire based out of Vancouver, BC. She’s also the creative force behind Kol’s Notes, a blog devoted to tasty DIY dog treat recipes, dog-friendly home care tips, and good ol’ fashioned dog-lover humour.
Chick has been making homemade treats for her dogs for years, ever since her first dog, Felix, developed an abundance of food allergies and intolerances. Felix was a devoted lover of snacks, so Chick found herself facing a tough dilemma: either don’t feed Felix any dog treats, or develop homemade recipes he could enjoy and his body would tolerate.
Chick chose the latter. And dogs (as well as dog-lovers) across the internet have been enjoying her recipes ever since!
Here’s a delicious allergen-free dog treat recipe that Chick developed featuring nutritious sweet potatoes and dog-safe spices. It calls for brown rice flour instead of standard flour, for dogs with wheat allergies, and suggests egg alternatives for any dogs allergic to the proteins in egg yolks.
- 2 1/2 cups brown rice flour
- 2 extra-large eggs (if your dog is allergic to eggs, substitute 3 tablespoons chickpea liquid/aquafaba or ½ cup of unsweetened applesauce)
- 3/4 cup baked sweet potato
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- about 1/4 cup cold water
How to make Sweet Potato Dog Treats
- Preheat oven to 350° F and line a baking sheet (or two) with parchment paper.
- In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs (or add an allergy-free alternative, such as chickpea liquid or unsweetened applesauce). Add sweet potato and mash with a fork until mostly smooth. (Don't be afraid to leave it a little chunky.)
- Stir in brown rice flour, cinnamon, and ginger, until it forms a dry dough.
- Add cold water 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough is firm, but not sticky.
- Roll out dough until it is about 1/8 - 3/16" thick.
- Cut out with cookie cutters or simply slice the dough into squares using a knife or a pizza cutter.
- Place cookies on the baking tray and poke each one with a fork to prevent them from puffing up too much during baking.
- Bake for 20 - 25 minutes until the bottoms are golden brown.
- Flip the treats and bake for an additional 20 minutes.
- Allow the treats to cool completely, then store in an airtight container.
Store fully dried, crisp all-the-way-through treats in an airtight container in a cool dark place for up to three weeks. Treats may be frozen for up to three months.
Single-ingredient, protein-rich dog treats
For dogs who simply cannot consume anything but protein, Chick recommends her recipe for Meaty Dehydrated Dog Treats as a great alternative. She says these bite-sized treats can be made from whatever meat your allergic dog tolerates best.
- One-pound ground meat or your dog’s favourite allergy-friendly dog food
- One piping bag and a #18 or #12 Wilton tip
- Parchment paper
- Line a baking sheet or dehydrator tray with parchment. If using the oven, preheat to 150° F.
- In a pan, sauté the meat until lightly browned. In a blender or food processor, puree until smooth. Press meat paste through a strainer to remove all ‘chunks,’ and don’t forget to feed these yummy tidbits to your resident taste tester. (NOTE: To skip this step, simply use an allergy-friendly pate-style canned dog food.)
- Fill a piping bag with meat paste/canned food. Pipe ¼-inch dots onto the parchment, spaced evenly apart. (Don't worry about crowding, these will shrink as they dry.) Use Wilton tip #18 for fancier shapes and swirls or Wilton tip #12 for plain dots.
- Oven Method: Place tray in oven and bake for six to eight hours, shaking the tray once or twice to ‘flip’ your treats.
Dehydrator Method: Turn on the dehydrator to the ‘meat’ setting or 150° F. Dehydrate for 6 to 8 hours.
Makes 1/4-pound of tiny treats, great for training and rewards.
The secret to DIY treats for allergic or food intolerant dogs
As awareness has increased about food allergies and intolerances in dogs, so have options available for pet parents. You’ll find everything from commercial dog foods marketed as hypoallergenic to endless online recipes for homemade allergen-free dog food and treats.
But, if you suspect your dog has a food allergy, the best place to start is with your veterinarian and/or a veterinary nutritionist...not online or in the pet food aisle. Dietary treatment of allergies should always be managed and monitored by an experienced veterinary professional. And once your dog is diagnosed with a food allergy, any changes to their primary diet or treats should be evaluated by your veterinarian or nutritionist before you test them out on your pet.
According to Mahaney, there is no 'one size fits all' recipe for dogs with food allergies, so you’ll need to remain diligent and scrutinize labels. Treats such as those to hide pills generally have multiple ingredients, as do commercially available dog biscuits and non-veterinary prescription foods, even if they are labelled ‘allergy-friendly.’
DIY treats allow pet parents more control over the finished product, but you may need to play around with proportions and ingredients if you are adapting a recipe to exclude certain allergens. It’s a good idea to check the comments section on online recipes to see if other pet parents have workarounds using ingredients that are safe for your dog to eat.
Whenever trying out a new treat — even with your veterinarian’s approval — be sure to do so gradually, so you can keep an eye out for any symptoms of an immune response or intolerance. With a little creativity (and a willing taste tester) you’re sure to land on a tasty treat that your sensitive dog can safely enjoy.
Carol Bryant is the founder of FidoseofReality.com and Wigglebutt Warriors. A pet product expert, Carol is the President of the Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA) and the 2020 winner for Best Dog Blog.