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Is your dog scratching or licking his/her paws endlessly? Have you noticed your dog's skin is red, irritated, or experiencing hair loss?
If so, your dog may be suffering from environmental allergies. Environmental allergies are caused by allergens in the environment such as dust mites and pollen. These allergens trigger an immune response which causes inflammation, leading to itchy skin and discomfort.
Itchy dogs who may exhibit anything from occasional or mild itching, to dry skin, to severely itchy skin with excessive scratching, to paw-licking, or other uncomfortable skin conditions could be suffering from external environmental allergies rather than food allergies or food sensitivities as pet parents often assume.
Fortunately, there are dietary changes you can make to help your dog cope with environmental allergies. Here are 3 very easy ways to manage your dog's allergies with diet even when you're dealing with environmental allergy symptoms.
First, what are histamines?
Histamines are chemicals that are produced by the body in response to allergic reactions. They play a role in inflammation and can be triggered by things like pollen, dust, and certain foods.
Histamines are our bodies' response to "invaders" bringing all those problematic allergy symptoms (your dog's itchy skin, excessive scratching, dry skin, watery eyes & more) to the fight ...
To understand your dog's (& our own) allergies and allergic reactions and what we can do about them with nutrition, it helps to understand histamines - what they are, how they behave, and their presence in our bodies.
Most pet parents are familiar with antihistamines - the meds we use to dry up watery eyes, sniffly noses, and reduce inflammation and itchiness in their dog's skin. Histamines in the body reacting - or overreacting - as a protective response to perceived invaders trigger those symptoms that have us reaching for antihistamines to deliver itch relief for dogs.
The technical definition of histamines
Technically by definition, histamine is a vasoactive amine, containing amino groups that act on blood vessels. Histamine is released by certain cells in response to allergies- such as those environmental allergens that come around in the spring time.
Histamine can be made by the body and can be provided in food. It performs many helpful functions inside the body, notably in the immune, digestive, and neurological systems.
The real life working definition of histamines as allergen "bouncers"
A simple way to think of histamines as we normally encounter them is as the bouncers of the immune system. They're on call to remove anything the immune system perceives to be a foreign substance not supportive of the body - such as environmental allergens like pollen or topical chemical irritants, whether picked up on paws, breathed in through the air, or coming in through contact with your dog's skin.
Cells are triggered to release histamines to eradicate the invaders from the site of the perceived invasion. When the volume of histamine is at a significant level, it creates all manner of what we see as allergy symptoms - heat, blood flow, inflammation, increased mucus production, watery eyes/nose, and skin irritation/itchiness - in an effort to remove the offenders through your dog's eyes, ears, paws, and skin.
Your dog's histamine "bucket" - manage it to manage allergic symptoms...
One way to picture what's happening in your dog's body is imagining it this way: dogs have a histamine "bucket." When histamine levels remain in the bucket, histamines go about their job in the body and allergic symptoms don't present. When the levels of histamine increase and overflow the bucket, that's when you see your dog itching... along with other uncomfortable, even painful, symptoms.
What that actually means to you & your itchy dog
Food can be a potent carrier of additional histamine, and food choices in your dog's diet can be a useful management tool if you have a dog who tends to show allergy symptoms. As with most things, it's important to remember that every dog is an individual and histamine triggers are different with each dog.
So what can you do with your dog's diet to help support healthy histamine levels and lessen your itchy dog's reactions to environmental allergies?
3 ways to use food to reduce your dog's allergic reactions
It's worth underscoring that every dog has different nutritional needs and will react differently to foods that may or may not add to histamine levels. The important thing, as always, is know your dog and which foods help balance your dog's overall wellness.
#1. Use caution with high-histamine foods
Many foods that may be higher in histamine have other important nutritional value, which is why I say be aware and cautious rather than eliminate them.
Give me an example
A commonly-fed food high in histamine is canned sardines or really any canned fish. Sardines as well as oysters are often recommended as a beneficial addition to our dogs' bowls for good reason: they're an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, and also contain protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, selenium, and coenzyme Q10.
A dog who tends not to have allergies or a dog in the winter time with no environmental allergies may be able to handle the histamine load from sardines. But when a dog is battling allergies, the histamine from the sardines can cause the histamine bucket to overflow.
When you want to manage your dog's histamine level to decrease the load, opt for a high quality fish oil or fresh cooked fish - unless you are raw-savvy and know how to feed raw fish. Remember that fish will still fall under the category of a histamine liberator (more on that in a minute), but these essential fatty acids still deserve a place in the diet.
More examples of higher histamines...
Other foods high in histamine include fermented foods (yes, fermented veggies which are so great for promoting the good bacteria and getting rid of the bad in your dog's gut), aged foods (think cheese), and deli meats.
Be aware of foods that are "histamine liberators"
What exactly is a histamine liberator? These are foods that are not high in histamine themselves but can be likely to free up or encourage the release of histamines already present.
Give me an example
Nuts, some spices, strawberries, pineapple, citrus fruits, legumes, bananas, and shellfish can act as histamine liberators. While the concept of histamine liberators (causing cells to release histamine) is less scientific, it is another factor to keep in mind, especially with a dog who tends to be more highly reactive to environmental allergens.
Again, many of these foods are high in antioxidants and other key nutrients that make them valuable in your dog's diet. Every dog just like humans has unique dietary triggers, so you'll want to consider all factors as a point of awareness.
#2. Use low-histamine foods and DAO-promoting foods to lower your dog's histamine
Another way to manage your dog's histamine levels is by including more foods that are low in histamine.
Give me an example
Sweet potatoes are a good example of a food that is low in histamine and stimulates enzymes in the digestive system that facilitate digestion and help break down histamines.
Other low-histamine foods include:
- Fresh meat and freshly-caught fish
- Non-citrus fruits
- Gluten-free grains, such as quinoa and rice
- Fresh vegetables & greens except tomatoes, avocados, spinach, and eggplant
- Olive oil, coconut oil
What is DAO & how do DAO-promoting foods decrease histamine?
DAO is an enzyme in our dogs' bodies (& ours) that breaks down histamine in the gut. DAO (diamine oxidase) keeps histamine levels in a healthy range, helping to avoid uncomfortable allergic symptoms in the process.
It's a digestive enzyme produced in the kidneys, thymus, and intestinal lining of your digestive tract - and can be increased naturally with DAO-promoting foods.
Give me an example
DAO can be found in kidneys. Kidneys are already a great organ protein to add to your dog's diet as a fabulous source of selenium, a nutrient critical for the antioxidant system in dogs and humans.
Ginger is another DAO promoter, histamine-blocker/antihistamine, and well known as a digestive aid for both dogs and humans. Some other nutrients and vitamins that research has shown can support DAO are vitamin C, B6, zinc, and magnesium. (If your dog is seriously deficient in DAO, there are also supplements available in addition to your DAO-promoting foods.)
Include kidney in your dog's diet either raw or frozen (or freeze-dried raw), and remember to think about your dog's treats as food and an opportunity for nutrition boosts as well. Try adding freeze-dried kidney treats to your repertoire - especially for frequently itchy dogs who tend to have severe itching!
Add a bit of finely chopped or blended fresh organic ginger to your dog's bowl. A small amount (a fraction of a teaspoon) added regularly to your dog's food not only helps block histamine but puts ginger's high-powered antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties to work for your dog.
Add turmeric to your dog's meals - another spice that can block histamine and a widely known natural herbal remedy that's a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
#3. Keep food raw or frozen to limit histamine increases
Cooked food that sits in the fridge for prolonged periods of time will see a dramatic rise in histamine. Raw foods or just-cooked foods do not see this level of histamine.
Regardless of the diet you are feeding, keep food frozen for as long as possible before thawing and feeding it. And of course, serving fresh foods always works!
There are many other ways to address environmental allergies and provide itch relief for dogs with diet - but these are simple ones anybody can implement.
Next up in the Allergies Channel on Dogly
Now that you've learned how to manage your dog's itchy skin with food, continue to the next guide here to learn how to be aware of environmental toxins that fuel allergies.
Hop over to the Allergies Channel if you have any nutrition related questions for the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Food Allergies, Itchy Allergies, and Seasonal Allergies.
And if you ever need more personalized nutrition guidance, please reach out!