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When to Consider a Limited Ingredient Diet Dog Food

When to Consider a Limited Ingredient Diet Dog Food

It can be overwhelming as a pup parent to try to decide what’s best to feed your pooch. Dietary needs are very complex and there is no shortage of choices to go along with them.

In recent years, limited ingredient diet dog food has become increasingly popular. Reasons have included dietary protein allergies that cause digestive upset and skin allergies, digestive intolerances to other ingredients, and an increased awareness of food ingredients. Food and treat recall concerns have contributed just as much to interest in limited ingredient diets as therapeutic applications have.

But what are limited ingredient diets, and are they right for your pooch?

In this article we’ll discuss what these diets can be composed of, how to think critically about their use, and two broad categories where they might be appropriate to consider. Towards the end, we’ll sum up the main takeaways with a short pros/cons list.


Limited Ingredients, Limitless Possibilities

A limited ingredient diet is typically one that is restricted to only one protein and/or carbohydrate source, with a minimal number of additional ingredients to allow balancing for fat, fiber, and vitamin and mineral content. Keep in mind throughout this article, that this definition is the best one.

Your protein in most cases, is going to be your meat source, like chicken, beef, or fish. Protein can also be derived from plant-based sources, like peas, for example, but mostly we’re thinking about meat. Your carbohydrate source is typically something like rice, oats, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, among others.

Now, this is what a limited ingredient diet really should be. Unfortunately, in the wider world of pet food manufacturing, this term is not strictly adhered to and can be very open to interpretation. The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees pet food labeling, acknowledges that there are several terms used on pet food labels, such as the term “natural” and “limited ingredient” that have flexible definitions. For some companies, a limited ingredient diet could simply mean that compared to their Diet A, their Diet B has a shorter ingredient list. But Diet B could still have multiple protein and carbohydrate sources. In turn, Diet B could still have far more ingredients compared to another company’s limited ingredient diet.

So what does this mean?

In short, it means you have to be aware of your actual diet ingredients listed on the back of the bag or can of food and not just rely on the label claim on the front of the packaging. The formulations for these diets can truly be limitless, so you have to be careful.


Protein Allergy 101

Now we’re going to chat about allergies. After all, this is a major reason why limited ingredient diets have grown to become so popular.

Now, contrary to some belief, dogs can only have allergies to proteins. This doesn’t only include meat proteins (wheat gluten is after all a protein too), but meat proteins certainly take the cake of blame, especially chicken and beef protein.

This does not mean that dogs don’t have intolerances to certain ingredients that cause digestive issues like soft stool and gas. Some pups may have difficulty digesting certain types of carbohydrates, higher amounts of fat, and high fiber. These are also sound reasons to consider a limited ingredient diet in some cases, and we’ll cover them in a little more detail soon. But if we’re talking about skin allergies or a true dietary allergy, you’re looking at protein.

If we suspect that a dog might have a protein allergy, the ideal way to approach it is with a very strict dietary trial for 2-3 months. By selecting a single protein source and eliminating as many other variables from the diet as possible, you then continue feeding it for several weeks. If you see relief from signs of itching, scratching, or bowel irritation, you at least know that you’ve removed the offending protein.

But even when your pup is feeling better, you still don’t know which protein (or proteins) is responsible. To know that, you must then start adding back in protein sources, one by one, until a reaction is identified. This could be a skin allergy flare-up with lots of itchiness, or digestive problems returning. A more simple but less specific strategy could also involve reverting back to a previous diet. You might at least have some idea what your pup could be allergic to based on the old diet’s ingredients list.


Dietary Intolerance

Now, as mentioned, dietary issues may not be limited to protein allergies and can include dietary intolerances. It’s important to remember that dietary intolerance is not the same as a true allergy.

There are many other types of ingredients in a diet that a dog could have digestive problems with. Beans and soybeans, for example, can be difficult carbohydrates for pups to digest. Bacteria in the digestive tract end up having to do most of the job and the byproduct is gas. You then have lots of foul emissions to deal with at home.

Diets high in fat can be very difficult for pups to digest properly and is why you should always keep the trash can lid locked down after eating some greasy fried chicken for dinner.

Figuring out appropriate amounts of fiber can be problematic as well. Soluble fiber, which includes pectins, gums, and psyllium husk, slows down intestinal transit time by absorbing water in the digestive tract. This can help with digestibility but can also lead to constipation and gas if over-supplemented. Insoluble fiber, more of your “woody” plant sources like beet pulp, increase intestinal transit time which is good for weight loss but over-supplementing can lead to diarrhea.

As you can imagine, you may find that some diets in certain proportions of these ingredients may not agree with your pooch. There are also numerous sources of these ingredients that can be used, leading to anxiety for some pup parents about what all these ingredients are for. And it is true that numerous ingredients can make it difficult to discern what your pup may have an intolerance to.


How to Implement a Limited Ingredient Diet

So, with all this information, where does a limited ingredient diet fit? The truth is that it can depend on what our goal is. A limited ingredient diet may not be necessary “just because”. Is there a protein allergy we’re concerned about? Or could there be another source of dietary intolerance?

In the case of a protein allergy, a limited ingredient diet can be helpful if it’s guaranteed to have only a single protein source. It’s best if this protein source is more of a “novel” protein, like venison, rabbit, kangaroo, or a few other less common sources that are less likely to cause a reaction.

But because dietary trials require such a time commitment and quality control, your veterinarian may recommend a prescription diet for a protein allergy. These could include a novel protein prescription diet, or a hydrolyzed protein diet. Hydrolyzed protein consists of protein broken down into its more basic amino acid components, which are too small for the immune system to recognize.

But because prescription diets can be cost-prohibitive for some, and you definitely have to be committed, some pup parents may decide with their veterinarian on a softer approach with an over the counter limited ingredient food.

If you can find a truly limited ingredient food, it could be a good starting place to figure things out on your own. For example, if you find a diet with a single novel protein, rice as a single highly digestible carbohydrate source, and only a couple other ingredients to adjust for fat, fiber, and vitamin and mineral content, you may be well on your way to eliminating many dietary variables.

But what you don’t want to do is change your pup’s diet every 1-2 weeks on your own, expecting something to work. You should be transitioning slowly to a new diet over 5-7 days, and giving the new, fully implemented diet at least a couple of weeks. The digestive tract is a very complex system and requires acclimation to any new diet change, even if a diet does have a limited number of high quality ingredients.

With dietary intolerance, it’s important to understand that you may be dealing with several possibilities as we reviewed. A diet could have poor digestibility, fat or fiber content that’s inappropriate for a pup, another specific nutrient intolerance, or a combination. Because of how many possibilities there are for intolerance, seeking guidance from your veterinarian can be extremely helpful to narrow them down.

Most importantly, when looking for any diet, limited ingredient or not, make sure to look for the AAFCO statement on the bag or can. We can’t forget that there are many nutrients vital to a dog’s health, and they have to be supplemented within certain amounts and ratios, and thus balanced. Foods with the AAFCO statement have met these requirements so that you can be sure your limited ingredient diet is not lacking ingredients.


Treats Are Important Too!

In addition to an actual diet, puppy love wouldn’t be the same without treats. Sometimes, this is the hardest part of dietary restriction for pup parents. You have to remember that if you’re attempting dietary restrictions and limited ingredients, this has to go for treats as well. But it doesn’t mean treats are out at all! Fortunately, finding limited ingredient treats can actually be an easier task, as a treat does not have to be nutritionally balanced, like a diet.

For treats that have only a single ingredient that helps to take the guesswork out of what may be causing an allergy or digestive issue for your pup, why not take a look at Single Ingredient Treats? Barkz treats are made with only 100% all natural meat. Or, if we’re avoiding common meat proteins, try the 100% sweet potato treats instead. You can’t beat treats with only one, all-natural ingredient.


Unlimited Possibilities But Limited Expectations

We’ll finish up with a pros and cons list as promised to help summarize the main takeaways about limited ingredient foods.


  • A true limited ingredient diet eliminates many ingredient variables
  • May be of benefit for protein allergies (depending on ingredients)
  • May be of benefit for other dietary intolerances (depending on ingredients)
  • May be more cost effective compared to some prescription diets


  • Formulations can vary greatly. Pay attention to ingredient lists!
  • May be more pricey compared to more generic diets
  • Requires transition and trials like any new diet


A limited ingredient diet dog food can be a good starting point for a dietary intolerance or allergy but it’s important to have the right expectations. You still have to be aware of the ingredients and have goals in mind. To help set good expectations and increase your chances of success, it’s best to discuss dietary concerns with your vet prior to starting any new therapeutic diet.

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