black dog with his head tilted, thinking 'what does it mean?'

If you’ve ever heard the term “hydrolyzed protein dog food,” you may wonder: what IS hydrolyzed protein, and why would it be in my dog’s food?!

Hydrolyzed protein dog foods are prescribed by veterinarians to address specific health challenges — but they’re not the only option. It’s important that pet parents have all the facts on what hydrolyzed protein is and what alternatives are available, so they can make the choices that work best for their pups.

As always, if you are concerned about your dog’s specific situation or health needs, don’t hesitate to consult your trusted veterinarian before making any major dietary changes.

What Is Hydrolyzed Protein Dog Food For?

Hydrolyzed protein dog food has been chemically altered through a process called hydrolysis so that the protein molecules in the food are broken apart into their base components (amino acids and peptides). This is done to obliterate the molecule tags that your dog’s body uses to identify which meat the protein came from.

In other words, once a food has been hydrolyzed, your dog’s body will still be able to digest and use the protein. But, their body will no longer be able to determine if the protein came from chicken vs turkey vs beef. The broken-down molecules will be treated simply as generic, uncategorized protein.

So, why would you want to feed your dog chemically treated food? Hydrolyzed protein dog food is prescribed by veterinarians for dogs with suspected food allergies or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), in order to reduce or eliminate unpleasant physical reactions to their meals.

The logic is: It doesn’t matter if your pup has a chicken allergy if their body doesn’t realize they are eating chicken!

Is Hydrolyzed Protein Good for Dogs?

The process of hydrolysis isn’t new; in fact, hydrolysis has been used for years in infant formula to help babies digest cow milk. But is hydrolyzed protein dog food healthy for Fido?

There are a few benefits of hydrolyzed protein dog food. Many dogs find it easier to digest than most commercial dog foods, reducing symptoms of IBD and overall digestive distress.

When it works as intended, hydrolyzed protein dog food can be an effective “clean slate” to “reset” a dog’s digestive system. It’s designed to give Fido’s stomach a chance to settle and provide your pup with relief from their allergy symptoms — so you can begin systematically identifying what was causing the reaction in the first place.

Of course, not every dog tolerates hydrolyzed protein dog food the same way, and side effects are possible. Hydrolyzed protein dog food side effects aren’t usually drastic, but they can still be frustrating for pet parents. 

Potential Side Effects of Hydrolyzed Protein Dog Food

brown dog eating dog food in a white food bowl

Hydrolyzed protein dog food can trigger diarrhea, constipation or other digestive upsets in some dogs. It also has reduced nutritional value compared to most dog foods. Some dogs are so unimpressed by the smell and texture of hydrolyzed protein that they are reluctant to even eat it in the first place, which may lead to loss of appetite and malnutrition over time.

Plus, hydrolyzed protein dog food doesn’t always eliminate your dog’s allergy symptoms — the one thing it was made to do! Many pet parents have found that their pup’s itchiness or other symptoms continued, even on a hydrolyzed protein diet. Studies have confirmed this, finding that hydrolyzed protein dog foods can still trigger an immune system response in some dogs.

There are a few reasons why your dog may still have symptoms while eating a “hypoallergenic” hydrolyzed protein dog food. Your dog may be having a reaction to the protein itself despite the chemical alteration, or the reaction could actually be triggered by one of the other ingredients or additives in the food.

In fact, if you actually turn the bag around and look at the hydrolyzed protein dog food ingredients… you may not be impressed.

Hydrolyzed protein dog food is usually made with chicken, salmon or even soy as the main protein. There’s nothing natural about feeding your dog a diet based on genetically modified soy, which has been chemically altered even further through hydrolysis.

These diets will often contain additives like chicken fat, fish oil, pea fiber, potatoes, brewer’s rice, cornstarch or beet pulp. That’s a long list of potential allergens! So if your dog on a hydrolyzed protein diet does experience an allergic reaction, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint which ingredient triggered it.

If your dog has a grain allergy or gluten intolerance, you definitely don’t want to feed them foods that include soy, corn or rice. Even if your dog doesn’t have a grain allergy that you’re aware of, grain free dog foods are healthier for your dog overall — for a variety of reasons

Grain free hydrolyzed protein dog foods do exist, but they can be difficult to find. Even the grain free versions will still include carb-heavy fillers to “bulk up” the food, such as peas or potatoes.

Ultimately, hydrolyzed protein dog food is not intended to be fed long term; it’s meant to be a temporary stopgap to provide relief from allergy symptoms while you systematically determine which ingredients your pup is actually allergic to. Once that information is confirmed, your dog can be transitioned to a more natural dog food that excludes the offending ingredients.

So, is hydrolyzed protein dog food bad for dogs? A better question might be: when it comes to addressing Fido’s food allergies, could a less processed and more natural dog food accomplish the same result?

Hydrolyzed Protein Dog Food Alternatives

You can’t make hydrolyzed protein dog food at home, and the over-the-counter or non-prescription options are generally considered not as effective as the prescription foods.

Fortunately, there are other options for your dog’s elimination diet trial. According to the North Carolina State Veterinary Hospital:

“Elimination diet trials are the most reliable way to accurately diagnose a food allergy (adverse food reaction) or food intolerance in dogs and cats. The recommended hydrolyzed or novel protein diet is fed exclusively for 6-10 weeks, followed by a dietary rechallenge. This helps identify ingredients that your pet is sensitive to and confirms that this is truly a dietary adverse reaction as opposed to environmental allergies, which can cause similar symptoms.”

A novel protein diet is one viable substitute for hydrolyzed protein dog food. It’s an excellent way to “reset” your dog’s digestive system without chemically altered hydrolyzed protein. “Novel” simply refers to any protein that your dog has never eaten before, and therefore they are less likely to be allergic to.

For example — if you know your dog has only eaten more common proteins like beef, chicken or turkey, you could try feeding them exclusively duck, rabbit or salmon. As with any food trial, it’s crucial to follow it exactly. Feeding your dog any outside ingredients makes the trial ineffective. Yes, that includes treats!Shiba Inu dog accepting a treat from a person

So, if you feed your dog hydrolyzed protein dog food, you’ll be reliant on the hydrolyzed protein dog treats that are made by the same manufacturers.

But, if you have chosen a novel protein diet instead, you only need to make sure your dog’s treats don’t introduce any new ingredients. For example, if your dog is now exclusively eating a duck diet, train them with duck treats only. Just make sure to watch out for treats that use the same source protein but still contain grains, dyes or other artificial ingredients. (For example, if a bag of treats says they are “duck-based” or “duck-flavored.”)

The ideal elimination food trial will be an ultra-limited ingredient diet. Even hydrolyzed protein dog foods still contain grains, fillers and other additives. So if your pup is continuing to have symptoms while eating hydrolyzed protein, it may not be clear which ingredient is triggering the reaction.

An ultra-limited ingredient diet is the best way to cut out any “wild card” ingredients. That way, if your dog does experience allergies, you’ll know for certain their allergy is to the protein itself — and not one of the other additive ingredients.

Vital Essentials dog food and treats are made of real, high quality meat and don’t contain grains, artificial preservatives or unnecessary fillers. This makes VE food and treats the ideal choice for an elimination diet trial!


For some dogs, hydrolyzed protein dog foods can be a viable choice for managing food allergy symptoms and other kinds of digestive distress.

However, this chemically altered prescription food is not your only choice as a pet parent. A novel protein diet based on a grain free, high quality, ultra-limited ingredient dog food is another way to cut out potential allergens — while also giving your dog all the awesome health benefits of naturally protein-rich real meat!

Limited ingredient raw dog food diets go beyond addressing allergies – learn how Vital Essentials can also assist with obesity and diabetes.