Since dogs and humans share an anatomically and physiologically very similar GI tract and harbor a taxonomically and functionally largely overlapping micro biome, the dog provides unique features as a spontaneous model of disease (Coelho et al., 2018; Alessandri et al., 2019).
Studies reveal that our best friends react to food in a similar manner that we do. Therefore, a healthful diet low (or the best you can do) in additives and chemicals is beneficial for a healthy heart, gut and brain . We know food affects health for both canine and human. We also know food affects your mood, a healthy gut is a happier human and canine.
If you’re mindful of the food you consume and share with your pets, there’s a good chance you’re solving a behavioural problem brought on by anxiety due to diet. So ‘clean eating’ may not be only for you! Try is for your furry friend as well.
What is the Canine Gut Microbiome?
You and your pet have a microbiome. The microbiome is essentially an ecosystem within you which regulates immunity, helps metabolism and guards against pathogens. This is an over simplified explanation of a vastly complicated system.
“While variations in composition are observed between different studies, it is important however to note that regardless of the methods used, key bacterial species are consistently present in fecal samples of healthy dogs indicating the presence of a core fecal bacterial community.” 1
What is your Mutt’s Gut telling you?
The gut (of any living being) is an ecosystem within a body. And when a system, any system is off balance the ill effects are cascading. Poor gut health may present itself as allergies, rashes, itchy skin and irritation. This in turn can lead to behavioural problems because it is difficult for your dog to explain to you that their skin rash is the reason for aggravation. Animals are good at hiding discomfort and pain, this is hard wired into them, a remnant of their time in the wild. So it is quite likely that you will not catch problems in time. If you see or experience sudden behavioural changes, with no apparent physical injury contact your vet.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.Hippocrates
How can I improve my Dog’s Gut Health?
As we explore ancient foods and remedies such as hemp and turmeric it is important to note, no food or remedy is a silver bullet. Each gut and system has specific needs and faces unique problems. There is a need to asses holitically (as over used as the term is) the conditions internal or external which lead to behavioural or physical health problems.
Pet food manufacturers are taking note of the fact that the gut is indeed more than an organ to be filled! It is the center of nutrition, digestion and the producer of serotonin. Which means it has a strong ability to affect mood. Canines with a disagreeable temper or behaviour may simply be facing a discomfort in the gut which they cannot verbalise.
Nutrition is broadly made up of macro and micro nutrients. Macro nutrients are proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Micro nutrients are derived in the body as macro nutrients are broken down and absorbed. Among the micro nutrients you should be paying attention to are Vitamin C, B12 and Folic acid. Dogs are omnivores which means they can eat and digest a variety of foods, from meat to vegetables. Cooked dogs food (even home cooked) may destroy many of the B and C vitamins. This is due to the heat applied, so imagine what the vitamin value of a commercial kibble is after it is passed through an extruder and subjected to heat.
Your Dog is not a Wolf
Your mutt’s ancestor, the wolf as well as other wild dogs often first eat the stomach contents of a kill. The stomach contents of a herbivore is essentially plants, so go ahead and include plant foods in your dogs meal plan. It is advised to puree vegetables – this resembles the stomach contents of a kill. If you are of the school of thought which says dogs are mini wolves. No matter how you view your mutt and his ancestors – green is good- so add it to his meal.
All dogs may not take easily to greens, especially if you are transitioning from a kibble based diet. Introduce them slowly and pulverise greens to help your dog’s body absorb them easier and get the full benefit of the food. The first couple of days may see tummy upsets, as long as it’s within reason, keep a watch on that. If it does not settle and your dog is unable to adjust, change the greens you’re feeding.
Meet the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve carries approximately 70% of information to the brain to initiate a response from the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for activities such as digestion and rest) and the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for reactions like the fight or flight response ). It helps to regulate the tension in the blood vessels against which the heart beats.
The nerve regulates digestion as well as heart and breathing rate. The nerve starts in the brain and travels along to the large intestine, it is one of the largest nerves in the body. Therefore, gut health is so important for your dog. All these signals going back and forth can be interrupted by a leaky gut which may present as indigestion, this happens when the mucous membrane is damaged. Damage to the membrane may be caused by diet, pesticides, over use of antibiotics and chemicals. It is important to speak to your vet or canine nutritionist if your dog is showing signs of allergic reactions to foods.
How to help your dog’s gut health
Ideally your dog should get 10% or a little more of protein in their diet. Often overlooked water is an essential nutrient. So make sure your dog has access to clean water from puppyhood to old age. Water aids digestion as well. Fats protect vital organs and carbohydrates provide energy. So your canine companion should ideally be getting all these in their diet. Balanced meals are what we aim for, but every meal can never be perfectly balanced! Aim to feed your dog the least processed foods you can access. Fresh meal prep is not always an option, but if you are able to prepare and freeze fresh meals, it is a better alternative to kibble.
As pets, cats and dogs age, they may need supplements just as humans for joint and mobility pain or discomfort. Throughout their lives pets are completely dependant on their human families for shelter, food and medical care. Medical care and a veterinarian who treats the whole animal not target the symptom. Antibiotics are life saving in many situations, but should be used sparingly. Why? Because they can destroy all those good bacteria along with the bad when they are over used.
If you have the ability and resources to feed your pets a healthful diet go ahead and make the change. It leads inevitably to an overall sense of wellness and a happier pet and pet family.
Disclaimer: Please do not treat this as medical or nutritional advise. A supplement, change of diet or medication must be introduced to your pet under veterinarian supervision.
Readings and References
1 Pilla, R., & Suchodolski, J. S. (2020). The Role of the Canine Gut Microbiome and Metabolome in Health and Gastrointestinal Disease. Frontiers in veterinary science, 6, 498. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2019.00498
2 The Gut-Brain Axis in Neurodegenerative Diseases and Relevance of the Canine Model: A Review. Front. Aging Neurosci., 18 June 2019 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2019.00130