Limited-Ingredient Diets Offer Solution for Dogs with Sensitivities

You are what you eat. As more people embrace this maxim by consuming foods with clean, simple ingredients, it follows that their furry kin would be afforded equal nutritive concern.

The relatively close relationship between human food trends and those in the pet food category can be seen in the emergence of limited-ingredient diets as a growing pet category, according to Don King, vice president of marketing for Champion Petfoods in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Canines, just like their human counterparts, can be affected by food sensitivities and allergies. For pet owners concerned about providing optimal nutrition for dogs that might have difficulty digesting some food ingredients, limited-ingredient recipes have proven an effective solution, King said.

"The legacy story for limited-ingredient diets is in helping to solve a need for healthy dogs with dietary sensitivities," he added.

Itchy and/or flaky skin, hot spots, a dull coat and poor hair growth, ear infections, weight loss or weight gain, vomiting and diarrhea are typical health issues that could be caused or exacerbated by an intolerance to a particular ingredient, according to industry insiders.

"Single-source proteins in a recipe can help address these issues," King said.

In response, pet owners look to a high-quality, allergy-friendly food for their dogs, made from simplified ingredients that are easy to understand, said Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas.

Still, there is a difference between a food intolerance and a full-blown food allergy, Smith noted, adding that the distinctions should be discussed with a dog’s veterinarian.

"However, limited-ingredient diets are a good place to start in determining if what a pet is eating might be irritating the gastrointestinal tract," she said.

There is often a focus on limited ingredients when an animal experiences some type of ongoing systemic distress, said Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo.

By focusing on a smaller number of ingredients and their inherent nutritional quality, pet owners can narrow the process of identifying the issue, Rowan added.

Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets, a pet store in Dallas, agreed.

"I believe limited-ingredient diets can be good for any dog, but especially for dogs that suffer from allergies or tummy problems," she said. "Fewer ingredients means there’s less to worry about causing an allergy." 

A limited-ingredient diet is an option for dogs that do not do well on multiprotein, multi-ingredient foods, according to Heidi Neal, owner of Loyal Biscuit, which has stores in Maine.

"For me, it is a last-case scenario when all other kibble options have failed," she said. "These foods are also great to use when trying to determine an allergy/food intolerance. Start them on something limited, get them cleaned up, and then add things back [in] in an attempt to find the triggers." 

At Furry Face, a pet store in Redlands, Calif., owner Lorin Grow noted that her establishment embraces these foods.

"We think it’s always appropriate to feed a limited-ingredient diet, especially in a processed diet," she said. "The bigger issue lies in a failure to rotate all brands, proteins, formulas and recipes.

"While feeding the same thing over and over may be convenient and sustain life, it certainly won’t be a well-rounded diet," Grow said. "Surviving and thriving are two different things. All animals require different, rotational ingredients in order to thrive and be properly nourished." 

Rowan added that while there is no formal definition for limited-ingredient diets, the guidelines are clear.

"From our perspective, a limited-ingredient diet must be complete and balanced and avoid ingredient stacking to hit certain thresholds on the guaranteed analysis," Rowan said. "Whole-food ingredients, fresh meats and no meal powders are our starting point."

New Products

Meeting the Limit

As the limited-ingredient diet category grows, new proteins are being offered and ingredients are changing or being eliminated as manufacturers monitor, evaluate and develop innovative recipes.

Bixbi Pet recently added six recipes to its Rawbble line, said Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Boulder, Colo.-based company. Three kibbles in the line—Turkey; Landatarian, with protein from fresh pork, lamb and goat; and Wingatarian, with fresh turkey, quail and duck—are considered limited-ingredient diets, as are the freeze-dried offerings, which are available in Turkey, Lamb and Pork recipes.

None of the recipes contain rendered meals or fractionated ingredients, and they have only fresh meat as their primary protein source.

"Bixbi’s less-is-more philosophy fits right into consumer interest in limited-ingredient diets," Rowan said. "Our approach goes beyond quantity and focuses on quality."

Merrick Pet Care recently updated its salmon, chicken and lamb limited-ingredient diet recipes for dogs. Chickpeas and lentils were removed from the recipe, and rich-in-fiber sweet potatoes have been added for a high-quality source of carbohydrates for energy.

"With the growing interest among pet parents in recipes that contain grains, we also introduced a salmon and chicken recipe that features healthy grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and barley that are easy for dogs to digest," said Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas. "All of our limited-ingredient diet recipes feature one protein source and are supplemented with taurine and DL-methionine to ensure they deliver a strong amino acid profile."

Champion Petfoods is focused on providing pet foods that respect the eating anatomy and unique physiology of dogs, said Don King, vice president of marketing for the Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-based company.

"The limited-ingredient diet category is a growth segment for Champion Petfoods and has led to a series of improvements and innovations in our Acana Singles product line," he said.

As such, the company recently introduced two additions to its Acana Singles line.

"In keeping with pet lover interest in biologically appropriate foods with wholesome grains in the recipe, we introduced Duck & Pumpkin and Lamb & Pumpkin flavors to the Singles product line," King said. "The Acana Singles products feature 60 percent duck or lamb as single, digestive meat proteins, important for healthy dogs with dietary sensitivities."

The recipes contain no legumes, he added.

Formulated at Champion Petfoods’ DogStar Kitchen in Auburn, Ky., the majority of ingredients are regionally sourced from farms and ranches in order to maintain high standards on ingredient quality, according to King.

Merchandising & Marketing

A Clean Solution

Positioning limited-ingredient diets (LID) as solutions to a pet’s distinctive dietary needs can help retailers market these recipes, according to industry insiders. In this way, the attributes of the diets and brands carried can be easily pointed out to customers.

At Furry Face, a pet store in Redlands, Calif., which carries almost no grain-in foods, limited-ingredient brands are displayed together.

"We group canned LID brands together and all others are in our normal grain-free line up," said owner Lorin Grow. "All frozen foods are grain-free and split up by species—cat or dog. The raw brands we carry are inherently LID when compared to most kibble and many canned foods."

Approximately 80 percent of the food product mix falls into the limited-ingredient category, Grow added.

At Odyssey Pets in Dallas, foods are displayed by brand, according to co-owner Sherry Redwine.

"Personally, I believe some of this LID stuff is all marketing," she said. "Considering that a lot of companies now attribute their foods as being ‘LID,’ probably 30 percent of our inventory is in these foods."

As popularity of the limited-ingredient diet category continues to expand, endcap displays, trial offers, and promotion via e-newsletters and social channels are all sound methods of appealing to customers looking for high-quality answers to their dog’s unique dietary needs, said Don King, vice president of marketing for Champion Petfoods in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

"Many pet lovers now recognize the importance of providing biologically appropriate food to help optimize their pets’ health and well-being," he said. "We recommend that retailers ask customers about their interests in a shorter, cleaner label or if their pet has dietary sensitivities."

At that point, solutions can be recommended that do not compromise in the use of high-quality animal proteins.

Consumer Education

The Value of Expertise

When it comes to discussing the benefits of simpler canine nutrition, well-versed pet specialty retailers and staff members are in a position to offer valuable suggestions, said industry insiders.

"Knowledge and education are what sets pet retailers apart from big-box stores," said Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo.

For Heidi V. Neal, owner of the Loyal Biscuit Co., which has stores in Maine, discussing the pros of feeding limited-ingredient diets is a no-brainer.

"It’s easy to speak to the benefits of a small, clean ingredient list when a customer has a dog with skin or stomach issues," she said. "We always encourage rotation though and talk about the drawbacks of feeding just a single diet for the entire life span of an animal. Sometimes a dog can only do well on one food, but if it can handle the rotation, we really try to explain the benefits of this type of feeding." 

Odyssey Pets, a pet store in Dallas, endorses high meat-inclusive diets with no wheat gluten, corn or byproducts, said co-owner Sherry Redwine.

"Beyond that, there [are] single-protein diets that I recommend for customers with dogs that have unknown allergies. Some allergies can be due to a certain protein, so you want to isolate the protein first," she said. "There are severely limited diets on the market that are only good for the short term to reset the dog’s digestion and figure out what may be causing the issue. We don’t carry many of these foods because a high-quality diet with a single-source protein usually does the trick."