Grain-free vs Hypo-allergenic Dog Food: Is There a Difference?

By Everything Shih Tzu October 18, 2022

You want the best for your Shih Tzu, and that includes what she eats, but with all of the different food options for dogs, keeping track of what things actually mean can get a bit confusing.

Infographic image: Grain Free vs Hypoallergenic dog food

Two words that get tossed around very frequently are hypo-allergenic and grain-free, and when it comes to dog food, they are often used interchangeably, but what's the difference between grain free and hypoallergenic dog food?

Although hypoallergenic dog foods don’t normally contain grain, it doesn’t mean that hypoallergenic and grain-free are the same thing.

Hypoallergenic dog foods contain limited ingredients to cut down on the many offenders when it comes to dog allergens, one of which is often grains.

However, grain-free foods are simply exactly what they say - free from grains, but they can contain other ingredients that might cause an allergic reaction.

Neither grain-free nor hypoallergenic foods should be viewed as a substitute for talking with your vet if your Shih Tzu seems to be having issues with her diet.

Instead, a thorough consultation with your pup’s doctor should be your first step, and then based on your vet’s findings, she can help recommend the best foods for your dog to try.

Still, it’s helpful to know what exactly grain-free and hypoallergenic mean, after all, it’s your dog that is going to be potentially eating one of them.

What Is Hypoallergenic Dog Food?

If you suspect your dog might have a food allergy, simply switching to another dog food won’t necessarily do you any good.

This is because many of the common culprits of food allergies, such as wheat, corn, chicken, eggs, milk, beef, and soy are often found in most conventional dog food recipes.

Hypo-allergenic dog foods contain very limited ingredients, and they are used in elimination diets to help determine if your dog is indeed allergic to his food.

For this reason, your pup’s hypoallergenic dog food should not contain any of the ingredients that were found in his former food, which of course, narrows down your options when you’re searching for a replacement.

Since dietary proteins are a common contributor to allergic reactions, many hypoallergenic dog foods contain hydrolyzed proteins.

These are proteins that have been chemically broken down through a process of hydrolysis into such small pieces that the immune system doesn’t react to them.

Your best starting point to find the right food for your Shih Tzu is to use an elimination diet under the guidance of your vet to pinpoint which exact ingredients your pup is allergic to, and then you can search for foods that don’t include that specific item.

What Is Grain-Free Dog Food?

Several grains like corn and wheat are known to be contributors when it comes to food allergies in dogs, therefore, hypoallergenic dog foods usually don’t contain any grains.

However, if a dog food is labeled as grain-free, it doesn’t mean that it still can’t have some of the other popular ingredients found in most dog foods (things like beef, soy, milk, and eggs).

This is why grain-free and hypoallergenic are not one and the same.

In fact, many of the other common dog food ingredients like beef and dairy can actually cause more allergies than grains like corn.

It has been a common misconception that grain-free dog food is a “fix” for dogs with allergies and that it is an overall healthier choice.

However, grain-free dog foods are not necessarily healthier or more nutritious.

The grains in these foods are usually replaced with another source of carbohydrates, for example, potatoes, which can actually end up adding more carbs to the bottom line.

Plus, depending on the food, it might actually lack the proper blend of nutrients that your dog needs.

If your dog has a specific issue with grains, then grain-free food can be a viable choice, but if your Shih Tzu can eat grains with no problem, then there is no real benefit to eating grain-free food.

It’s kind of like gluten-free foods in the human world; they are not necessarily healthier or lower in calories just because they are gluten-free, so if you have no issue with gluten, there is no reason for your to spring for a gluten-free diet.

However, if you are gluten intolerant or have Celiac’s Disease, you would seek out gluten-free foods.

Is Grain-Free Dog Food Dangerous?

The FDA has been investigating a potential link between a condition known as Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and certain dog foods since 2018.

Although the investigation is ongoing, there have been some startling connections between dog deaths and certain dog foods, many of which were labeled “grain-free.”

However, this is a study that is comprised of a number of different factors and many uncertainties and questions.

More information about this study can be found in their article "The Link Between Certain Diets and DCM," and your best course of action if you have any concerns about your dog’s diet is to consult with your veterinarian.

Dog Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

If your Shih Tzu seems to be having trouble with her diet, another thing to consider is her symptoms.

Sometimes, people assume their pup might have a food allergy when in fact the real culprit is food intolerance.

Your vet can obviously help you solve the mystery, but keep these considerations in mind when it comes to food allergies versus food intolerances:

  • Common symptoms of food allergies are chronic itchiness, ear infections, skin lesions (usually from frequent scratching due to irritation).
  • Common symptoms of food intolerances are gassiness, diarrhea, vomiting, upset stomach.

Although dogs can exhibit a mix of the above symptoms for both food allergies and food intolerances, this is a breakdown of which symptoms are more common for each food aversion.

Here are some more differences between food allergies and food intolerances:

  • A food allergy involves an immune response.
  • Food intolerance does not involve an immune response.
  • A true food allergy is actually not very common in dogs.
  • Food intolerance is much more common than food allergies.

Depending on whether your pup is suffering from a food allergy or food intolerance will determine what type of treatment you Shih Tzu will need.

Although either issue would most likely require a change in diet, when it comes to allergies, there are a host of other possibilities that can be the cause of your pup’s allergic response.

If your pet’s dog food is not to blame for her allergies, your vet can help narrow down the problem and suggest other treatments, such as allergy shots or anti-histamines to help alleviate your dog’s symptoms.

Ultimately, every dog is different, and what is a great choice for one pup might not be the best option for your Shih Tzu.

Therefore, know your options, monitor your dog, and discuss all possibilities for a new doggy diet with your vet before making any changes.

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