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Food Sensitivities in Dogs: Could Plant-Based Diets Help?

Updated: Feb 21

Could Plant-Based Diets for Our Dogs Help Treat Adverse Food Reactions and Sensitivities?

Got a puzzling problem with your pooch's skin or tummy? Did you know that in a study researching over 275 dogs with skin issues a majority of them were reacting to animal-based foods (beef, chicken, and dairy)?

It's also puzzling to all of us here at Virchew that even though it's widely known in the industry that plant-based foods could stop or even prevent these awful, costly, worrisome issues, no company has stepped up to provide solutions using plant-based diets supported by veterinary evidence-based cases. Until now. From the inception of Virchew, we've had our sights set on creating plant-healthy, complete and balanced meals supported by wholesome treats that could hold a solution to these issues. It seems our goal is manifesting. We're hearing from paw parents who are now at ease knowing they have found a solution for their pooch's 'puzzle of issues' through Virchew!

So, if your dog (and you!) are going crazy due to scratching, skin breakouts or open sores or persistent eye or ear infections - or your pooch is dealing with tummy issues or awful poops - you're not alone. In fact, based on interviews with our partner veterinary clinics, it's estimated that up to 50% of their patient visits are due to these issues.

Exploring Possible Causes

Dermatitis and gastrointestinal signs are the most common signs of adverse food sensitivities or reactions, which can be classified as either immunologic or non-immunologic. Food sensitivity refers specifically to reactions in animals that have an immunological basis. In contrast, food intolerance is appropriately used for non-immunological reactions. Because of the differing pathogenesis, a food sensitivity may develop over time due to repeated exposure to a food, but food intolerance can occur after one exposure since it does not involve immune amplification. Acute immune-mediated reactions (severe allergies) that typically involve angioedema are termed food anaphylaxis (1).

Adverse food sensitivity reactions can be hard to diagnose because they can result in similar clinical signs and exist alongside other diseases. Still, current evidence suggests that 10-49% of reactions and 1-6% of all dermatoses in dogs and cats can be attributed to food. Further, food sensitivity has been linked to Inflammatory Bowel Disease in dogs and clinical response to dietary modification has been observed in canines with chronic colitis (1).

Animal-Based Proteins: Reviewing the Literature on Dietary Allergens

Happy Virchew dog shouting I am a good pooper for all the dogs in the park to hear.


A literature review from 1967 to 2007 found that beef and dairy were the most common dietary sensitivities for dogs in cases where the problem ingredients were clearly identified, contributing to 34.2% and 19.8% of the 278 cases respectively. Wheat was identified in 15.1%, chicken in 8.6%, egg in 6.5%, lamb in 4.7%, and soy in 4.7%. Corn, pork, fish, and rice contributed to less than 3% each (7).

By switching to high-quality, plant-based proteins (which could certainly be called 'novel'), Virchew is receiving reports and testimonials from dozens of dog customers that their dogs have received relief from itching, redness, swelling, diarrhea, bloody stools, and mysterious vomiting. After a few weeks or few months, most have experienced a complete reversal and have continued showing no signs of symptoms at all.

Food Sensitivity Check List

Signs to watch for that could be a food sensitivity:

  • Inflamed, reddish skin (paws or skin at belly region)

  • Persistent itching

  • Dandruff or excessively dry skin

  • Persistent licking

  • Fur loss

  • Eye infections and inflammation

  • Waxy buildup in ears

  • Smelly, crusted ears

  • Facial swelling

  • Abnormal defecation

  • Diarrhea, gas (flatulence)

  • Abnormal stool or abnormal numbers of stools per day (1 - 2 is considered normal)

Breeds predisposed to developing food sensitivities and allergies include Chinese Shar-Peis, Wirehaired Fox Terriers, Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Boxers, Bulldogs, Bull Terriers, Boston Terriers, Labrador Retrievers, Lhasa Apsos, Bichon Frise, Brussels Griffon, Scottish Terriers, Shih Tzus, Maltese, and West Highland White Terriers.

NOTE: It's important to note that any one of these symptoms could also be clinical signs from other underlying conditions. You should always consult your veterinarian before making the decision to change your dog's diet.

3 Key Reasons Virchew Stands Out From the Pack


1. Virchew is not kibble. In fact, it's filled with dehydrated or dried, or lightly processed plant-based ingredients that you rehydrate before serving to your dog. The result is a nutrient-dense, moist, tasty meal for your dog. And, of course, Virchew does not include typical ingredients that are linked to food sensitivities or allergies.

2. Virchew is complete and balanced. We have worked diligently with Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists to ensure our foods are complete and balanced based on industry guidelines (AAFCO). In fact, our formulations surpass the guidelines in many of the ingredients. We intend to continue our innovation as the leading, plant-based food for dogs as we collect evidence and data from our nutrition programs with our veterinary partners.

3. No animal-based ingredients or known allergens. Of equal importance, our formulations do not contain any animal-derived allergens, or possible plant-based allergens such as wheat (gluten), soy, or corn. Our Virchew meals are made in our own production center, reducing the chances of antigen cross-contamination, found to be common in companion animal foods. (3, 4) This approach could potentially minimize the risk of adverse food reactions in our dog customers.​

Other evidence to support healthy tummies and overall good health:

  • Dogs have been living alongside humans for over 30,000 years (2,3). Thus, it is not surprising that genetic evidence supports their adaptation to a more human-like, starch-rich diet. In comparison to their wolf ancestors, dogs have significantly increased gene expression for pancreatic amylase, maltose to glucose conversion, and intestinal glucose uptake (4).

  • Hematological values remained normal in competitive racing huskies whether eating a balanced meat-free diet or meat-based diet over 16 weeks (5).

  • A well-known brand's vegetarian veterinary diet passed AAFCO feeding trial criteria for puppies and adults (6). However, this diet is contraindicated in some dogs with soy allergy. It also contains trans fat and animal-derived supplementary nutrients.

Are there other potential clinical uses of plant-based diets?

  • Urate stones: Plant-based diets tend to be low in purines and may be appropriate for dogs with uric acid urolithiasis (8).

  • Calcium oxalate stones: Plant-based diets tend to alkalinize urine. Low urinary pH was found to be a risk factor in development of calcium oxalate bladder stones in dogs (9). In humans, restricting animal protein and salt was found more beneficial for preventing calcium oxalate kidney stones than restricting calcium (10). Despite oxalate content, increased intake of whole plant foods was found to decrease risk (11).

  • Urinary tract health: High moisture, non-kibble formulations, such as Virchew, may further support urinary tract health.

  • Cancer: Emerging evidence suggests that consumption of some plant foods may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer in dogs as in humans (12). Potential carcinogens from cooked meat that were found absent in the hair of human vegetarians but present in the hair of human meat-eaters were also discovered to accumulate in the fur of dogs (13)

Fetch more plant-based canine nutrition information on our other blogs:


1. Debraekeleer, Jacques, Kathy L. Gross, and Steven C. Zicker. "Dogs as omnivores." Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. 5th ed. Topeka, KS: Mark Morris Institute, 2010. 252-53. Print.

2. Skoglund, Pontus, et al. "Ancient wolf genome reveals an early divergence of domestic dog ancestors and admixture into high-latitude breeds." Current Biology 25.11 (2015): 1515-1519.

3. Ovodov, Nikolai D., et al. "A 33,000-year-old incipient dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the earliest domestication disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum." PLoS One 6.7 (2011).

4. Axelsson, Erik, et al. "The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet." Nature 495.7441 (2013): 360-364.

5. Brown, Wendy Y., et al. "An experimental meat-free diet maintained haematological characteristics in sprint-racing sled dogs." British Journal of Nutrition 102.09 (2009): 1318-1323.

6. Purina Product Guide for Veterinary Clinics. St. Louis, MO: Nestlé Purina PetCare Company, 2014. Print.

7. Hill's Evidence-Based Clinical Nutrition for Dermatology Specialists. Topeka, KS: Hill's Pet Nutrition, 2007. Print.

8. Brown, W. Y., B. A. Vanselow, and S. W. Walkden-Brown. "One dog’s meat is another dog’s poison–nutrition in the Dalmatian dog." Recent Advances in Animal Nutrition in Australia 14 (2003): 123-131.

9. Okafor, Chika C., et al. "Risk factors associated with calcium oxalate urolithiasis in dogs evaluated at general care veterinary hospitals in the United States." Preventive Veterinary Medicine 115.3 (2014): 217-228.

10. Borghi, Loris, et al. "Comparison of two diets for the prevention of recurrent stones in idiopathic hypercalciuria." New England Journal of Medicine 346.2 (2002): 77-84.

11. Sorensen, Mathew D., et al. "Dietary intake of fiber, fruit and vegetables decreases the risk of incident kidney stones in women: A Women’s Health Initiative Report." The Journal of Urology 192.6 (2014): 1694-1699.

12. Raghavan, Malathi, et al. "Evaluation of the effect of dietary vegetable consumption on reducing risk of transitional cell carcinoma of the urinary bladder in Scottish Terriers." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 227.1 (2005): 94-100. 13. Gu, Dan, et al. "Biomonitoring the cooked meat carcinogen 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo [4, 5-b] pyridine in canine fur." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 60.36 (2012): 9371-9375.

An Important Disclaimer:

Virchew's blog, website, social media posts/comments, email communications and other correspondence are for educational purposes only and are not intended to diagnose, cure or prevent disease.

Our products and services are not a replacement for the expert care and advice provided by your veterinarian. Any dietary or healthcare changes should be made under their guidance, especially in the case of existing underlying health conditions.​

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