Gut health and the microbiome are garnering a lot of attention lately, in both humans and animals. While still a relatively new research field, our understanding of the human microbiome is rapidly evolving, and veterinary findings aren’t far behind. Evidence suggests that our dogs’ unique intestinal flora influences much more than simply digestion and metabolism. Rather, these microbial environments heavily influence a plethora of other bodily processes. It’s no wonder we use the term “guts” when referring to boldness or fortitude—the gut is a critical player in global pet health.
A microbiome is a mini-ecosystem consisting of a vast range of microorganisms including fungi, viruses, protozoa, and—largely—bacteria. Each body system has its own, unique microbiota, but the intestines house the largest population of these tiny organisms, with over one trillion microbes. To put this into perspective, your pet consists of billions of cells that make up their hair, eyes, skin, bones, and well, their whole being. Yet, the population of microbes in your pet’s gut still trumps this number by a factor of ten. Amazingly, no two pets have identical microbiomes, making these wildly unique communities a fascinating area of study. And, while most people can appreciate the gut microbiome’s role in digestion, this tiny habitat has so many important jobs that it is sometimes referred to as the “forgotten organ.” Let’s take a closer look at its many functions:
● Metabolism, nutrition, and vitamin synthesis— Gut bacteria are experts at breaking down complex carbohydrates and fibers that would otherwise pass through the stool as undigested material. This process, known as fermentation, results in beneficial end-products for the host (your pet). These end-products or, metabolites, provide energy for host cells, contribute to cell proliferation, and aid in fat absorption. Furthermore, gut microbes help synthesize vitamin K and several different B vitamins.
● Immunity — As a primary barrier between the gut mucosa and the outside world, your pet’s intestinal flora plays a fundamental role in overall immune function. Not only do these microbes help ward off harmful pathogens that enter the gut, they also communicate with and influence host immune cells by providing energy and even modulating their activity. Studies have shown that, at birth, germ-free animals have fewer immune cells in the intestines and in the blood compared to animals exposed to bacteria, indicating an intricate relationship between gut microflora and immune function.
● Neurologic and brain function — An emerging area of microbiome research suggests that “experimental changes to the gut microbiome can affect emotional behavior and related brain systems.” Early evidence shows that alterations in the bacterial make-up of the gut may play a role in brain diseases such as autism, anxiety, and depression. A study in dogs even revealed a statistically significant improvement in anxious behaviors after supplementation with a particular probiotic strain.
● Kidney function — As scientists explore the myriad of ways the gut microbiome impacts the body’s systems, human findings suggest that kidney disease may alter the bacterial make-up of the gut flora, too. This link allows for an interesting area of study with the potential for valuable new treatment options for this chronic disease.
The gut microbiome is comprised of thousands of diverse species of bacteria—some beneficial, some unwelcome—that collectively work to affect intestinal and other physiologic functions. When the microbiome is unbalanced, a reduction in bacterial species diversity or an increased number of pathogenic bacteria may occur, leading to a variety of clinical signs. This condition is known as dysbiosis. Affected pets may experience gastrointestinal signs, difficulties with nutrient absorption, or changes in fecal consistency, among others. Interestingly, dysbiosis can cause these abnormalities, but certain disease processes may also induce dysbiosis. Since this delicate ecosystem has such an impact on overall wellness, an unbalanced microbiome may be to blame for pets with a variety of health conditions. Chances are, however, if your pet is healthy, their microbiome is too.
Manipulating your pet’s intestinal flora may be necessary at some point in their life. Whether an acute case of diarrhea, a chronic gastrointestinal condition, anxiety, or even allergies, your veterinarian may recommend different products to support your pet’s intestinal health. Remember to always consult with your veterinarian before initiating a supplement or diet change. Here are some proven treatment options that may be presented to you, depending on your pet’s condition:
Prebiotics — You can think of prebiotics as nourishing food for favorable gut bacteria. Providing these specific fibers encourages beneficial bacteria to produce helpful metabolites, like short-chain fatty acids. While some prebiotics are safe for pets, like inulin and certain whole grains, others can pose risks of toxicity. They may be helpful in humans, but prebiotics like green onions and garlic could cause a dangerous red blood cell loss known as Heinz body anemia.
Probiotics — When we directly provide the gut with adequate amounts of beneficial bacteria or, probiotics, we can successfully alter the intestinal microbe balance for the better. Pet probiotics are becoming a hallmark for treating diarrhea, intestinal disorders, and even anxiety. While veterinary research into probiotic effectiveness is ongoing, the benefits in human medicine are well-established. Veterinary Naturals’ Immune & Allergy Chews provide both prebiotics and probiotics to help support pets with immune, allergic, or digestion problems. Your veterinarian can determine if your dog requires a specific probiotic strain.
Medications — When undesirable bacteria proliferate in the gut, antibiotics or other medications may be warranted. Ideally, this treatment will be given alongside a probiotic to encourage a healthy microbial balance.
Prescription foods — Specific diets with unique combinations of fiber, vitamins, prebiotics, and probiotics may be indicated for pets with specific health conditions.
Your dog’s gut is responsible for an incredible array of duties that keep her healthy, so it makes sense to take good care of it. Start by feeding your pet a nutritious diet and consult with your veterinarian about specific supplements that address her unique needs. While there is still much to learn about the emerging microbiome field, current findings suggest that this mini-ecosystem is capable of influencing overall canine well-being—a gutsy role, indeed.