Welcome to Dear Claire, our ask-the-expert advice column dedicated to helping your city dog live their best life. Got questions about your dog’s health, training, what to buy, or where to go? Claire has you covered.

We hear it all the time - ‘I had to change foods because my dog’s allergic to chicken’, ‘My dog has a chicken allergy, so I have to feed them this specific diet’, ‘My dog is super picky and can’t eat chicken’. So what’s happening to chicken and why are dogs suddenly so reactive to it?

For starters, chicken is literally everywhere.

Chicken is everywhere in dog food. It’s high-protein, palatable, and cost-effective to use chicken as an ingredient. Most dog food is made with chicken as the main ingredient, or as a protein-boost farther down the ingredient panel. Which means dogs are eating chicken. A lot of chicken.

The way that dogs digestive systems work means that overexposure to one kind of protein can lead to intolerance. 

Basically, their bodies get depleted of the necessary amino acids used to break down the chicken protein. This leads to partial digestion, so their white blood cells start to view chicken as invasive bacteria. Suddenly your dog is itchy, licking their paws, or is dealing with some wild surprises on your walk.

These symptoms are what we often misclassify as an allergy, but is most likely an intolerance. Food intolerance is annoying, but certainly treatable. Eliminating chicken from the diet may be step one, but what if it’s not the chicken itself that’s the root of the issue?

We Are What [Our Food] Eats

A free-range chicken is eating grubs, grass, and getting plenty of natural sunlight. A chicken that does not have pasture access is being fed a diet of grains (often fractured grains like ‘wheat middlings’) and soybean meal.

This diet has the unfortunate consequence of chickens overproducing a particular fatty acid, Omega-6. If improperly balanced with Omega-3’s (the kind that salmon oil is famous for), this can lead to a whole host of medical issues in our dogs like including arthritis, heart and liver issues, and most often, indigestion. 

It’s not the chicken that’s the problem, it’s the quality of their feed.

And most kibbles compound the problem - big time.

So let’s talk about kibble and why it only makes “allergies” worse. Think about your own body’s reaction to processed foods. No one here is claiming that we eat 100% ‘clean’ all the time (also, can we also stop using that phrase?) Our diets include a decent amount of processed food, but we all know that we feel better when most of the food we eat isn’t processed. We have more energy, less bloating and clearer minds. Our own diets have evolved to include a mix of mostly unprocessed and some processed foods. We just feel better.

Then there’s kibble. If we accept for ourselves that eating mostly unprocessed food is the optimal way to eat to feel good, why do we give our dogs mostly completely processed foods? Most kibble is cooked using the extrusion method, which means extreme heat and pressure, usually multiple times. It’s then coated in animal fats, probiotics, and preservatives. When we add in the variety of starches, filler ingredients, and synthetic vitamins needed to keep it ‘shelf-stable’, we may have found the actual inflammatory culprits. 

The more we de-nature the product, the harder it is for our dogs’ digestive systems to recognize it. What the overall quality of food comes down to is the integrity of the ingredients used, how they were sourced, and what form of processing they went through.

While it’s easy to blame chicken as an allergen culprit, it’s important to take the whole picture into account when determining what’s causing the issue. Switching to a diet higher in moisture, or looking for simple ingredients can be key steps to helping your dog get the most out of their meal.