There has been a lot of recent negative social media buzz on hydrolyzed diets. There’s very little that will put pet parents (myself included) into an emotional tailspin than information regarding something that can harm our four-legged family. This is especially true when the opinion comes from vets that many dog parents see as authority figures and thus the message gets repeated by their followers. Eventually, fear replaces factual information. I’m asking you to hit the pause button on all emotional reactions and consider the following.
What may lead a dog parent down the road of hydrolyzed foods?
The typical scenario starts with a dog owner who is frustrated as their dog deals with various allergic responses to food. They have tried various brands of kibble, canned, raw foods, cooked foods, adding a myriad of supplements including probiotics, fasting, feeding bone broth, trying novel foods et al. If the dog’s allergies translate to skin problems, people have usually also tried different shampoos, rinses, and all manner of suggestions from feeding apple cider vinegar to herbs and everything else you can think of.
Medication might have helped, but 2 weeks later the problem returns. The owners are exhausted, frustrated, and broke. The dogs are still not ok. A certain food might have seemed like the magic bullet for a while, but the immune system recognized it and the dog had yet another episode of GI distress and/or skin problems. More meds might have been prescribed, the gut microflora might be in worse shape because of it. Not giving the meds is likely to cause even greater inflammation. It’s a vicious cycle.
Some dogs have an abnormal immune response (often genetic) to dietary protein. This causes inflammation. The normal gut lining is only 5 mm (13/64″) thick at it’s thickest point and is imperfect to begin with, but it becomes thinner when inflamed. This can allow some intact protein molecules to seep through. The immune system reacts as if food is a foreign invader rather than a benign substance and this results in even more inflammation. Chronic inflammation leads to more severe response and some diseases. The longer this goes on the more dangerous the situation can become.
How might a hydrolyzed diet help?
Hydrolysis uses water in a process to break down proteins into such tiny pieces that the immune system doesn’t recognize them. Inflammation is reduced, the gut barrier calms down and can begin to rebuild. In turn, absorption of nutrients is greatly improved and many of those nutrients are key to gut health.
If the owner tries a hydrolyzed diet they may see fair to excellent results in about 8 weeks. BUT the ingredient list ( corn starch, hydrolyzed chicken liver, powdered cellulose, etc) makes them unhappy, so they want to try a different diet.
As to the ingredient list, the body needs nutrients, not ingredients. Where those nutrients come from matters in several ways including how well the body can absorb and utilize them. Our instinct usually tells us that receiving nutrients from fresh foods is most beneficial and indeed, that’s how I feel (example of my emotional response right here) about it but what’s happening on a deeper level when a dog has allergies and/or intolerances is what matters more. There is no benefit to fresh foods if they cause inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet is, in fact, what a hydrolyzed diet can be for a dog with an overactive immune system.
Important next steps
A dog will often regress unless a methodical approach is taken when weaning away from a hydrolyzed diet and the dog parent needs to accept the results. What does the approach look like? Sometimes it’s feeding one new food item every 1-2 weeks to test tolerance. If the dog reacts poorly, they need to get back to eating only the hydrolyzed diet again. What matters is the dog. It’s not about our preferences. It’s about understanding the gravity of chronic inflammation (which can even lead to cancers) and doing what’s necessary.
Lastly, hydrolyzed diets would be better used as an intermediate step rather than last resort. Once a dog reacts against 3-4 protein sources, don’t keep trying everything else under the sun. By feeding a hydrolyzed diet at this time rather than waiting, you have other food choices to try after the dog’s reaction has calmed down. This approach lessens confusion over what the dog might be reacting to and saves novel proteins to try down the road. Hydrolyzed diets have an important role to play, especially when used with some forethought.