Healthy gut, healthy dog

Most people know that, when you become a dog owner, you are responsible for your dog’s health, a regular exercise routine and a proper diet, but did you realise that you are also signing up to be the caretaker of a magnificent ecosystem living inside your dog’s gut? This ecosystem consists of millions of bacteria and other organisms, all working together to create the perfect environment to support your dog’s digestive system, immune system and overall health.

Gut flora

The organisms in the digestive tract are referred to as the gut microbiome or the gut flora. It has recently been discovered that a healthy gut plays a much larger role in your dog’s overall health than previously thought, with the effects even reaching as far as mental wellbeing and the behaviour of your pet. Unfortunately, in some instances, this balance of microorganisms can be disrupted, with some organisms dominating others, leading to serious health risks. This is known as dysbiosis.

How to ensure a healthy gut

Most veterinarians will agree that the most important step to ensuring a healthy gut is to feed your dog a good-quality, vet-recommended diet, containing sufficient fibre, as this is one of the most important sources of nutrients for the bacteria living in your dog’s gut. It is also very important to realise that the organisms living in your dog’s intestines are tailormade to fit the diet your dog is currently on. So, if you do decide to change your dog’s food, be sure to gradually transition from the old food to the new food over a period of at least seven days, to avoid vomiting, diarrhoea and other signs of gastrointestinal upset.

Sufficient exercise and rest, together with decreasing your dog’s exposure to unhealthy or fatty treats, has proved to not only keep your dog healthy, but also the organisms living in his gut. It has been shown that even excessive exposure to second-hand smoke can lead to a disruption of these sensitive organisms. Be sure to deworm your dog regularly, and ask your veterinarian to check your dog’s stools to confirm that he is worm-free. These parasites can disrupt gut health, most often leading to diarrhoea.

Prebiotics and probiotics

Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres that can be considered food for the bacteria. They selectively increase the number and activity of good bacteria to provide health benefits, while also producing energy for intestinal cells. Prebiotics are usually added to your dog’s food, with different types and brands containing different amounts, depending on their main function.

Probiotics, on the other hand, are live bacteria used to help adjust the intestinal bacterial population, when given in adequate amounts, to support a healthy gut. Probiotics need to be kept at very specific conditions to ensure the bacteria stay alive, and is therefore usually sold as supplements in powder form or in sachets, instead of being added to food.

Probiotics are being used more frequently in the veterinary industry due to the positive outcomes they have shown. They are specifically used for patients on antibiotics, as the use of antibiotics can lead to dysbiosis. Also, they can be beneficial to stressed dogs, for example those boarding in unfamiliar environments.

It is a very good idea to have probiotics on hand in case your dog has an episode of mild diarrhoea or gastrointestinal upset; if you change his diet; or if he is experiencing change or stressful situations. It has also been found that large and giant breed dogs have decreased digestibility when compared to small breed dogs, as well as overall softer stools, and these breeds will benefit from the increased digestibility that probiotics can offer.

Unfortunately, not all probiotics live up to their claims. These products need to contain very specific bacteria at the correct amounts. Be sure to ask your vet’s advice when choosing a probiotic.

An unhealthy gut

It is not uncommon for the ecosystem in your dog’s gut to become unbalanced, and for ‘bad’ bacteria to dominate over the ‘good’ ones. This is commonly seen with dogs on antibiotics, as the antibiotics vets administer are non-specific, and can’t easily distinguish between beneficial and pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria. Antibiotics given for a specific organ, like the lungs, still need to travel through the digestive system before being absorbed into the blood, and can therefore also affect organs like the gut, which was never its focus.

Dogs with an unhealthy gut flora will commonly have diarrhoea or pastier stool than usual, and might even vomit frequently. These dogs usually have poor overall health with poor weight, dry coats and poor immune systems, leading to many other disease conditions.

The veterinary community is realising every day that there is so much more to gut health than previously thought, and is using this knowledge to find safer ways of treating illnesses. Remember to take care when it comes to your dog’s gut health by ensuring he is on a good-quality, vet-recommended diet with sufficient prebiotics. Ask your veterinarian about the use of probiotics, to ensure not only a healthy gut, but a healthy and happy dog.

By Dr Johan Jordaan

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