Find out why the state of your dog or cat’s microbiome is so important to his overall health, and how proper nutrition can help bring it back into balance.
Gut health is a hot topic right now, and no wonder. The more we learn about it, the more we realize how important balanced populations of microbes are to overall health, not only in ourselves but in our dogs and cats as well. Ongoing research indicates that an imbalanced microbiome may contribute to a host of health issues. It’s also no surprise that nutrition plays a major role in the health of an animal’s (or human’s!) microbiome. This article answers some key questions about the connection between nutrition and your dog or cat’s microbiome.
Q. What are some of the signs of a microbiome that’s in need of nutritional help? Are there any signs, besides digestive ones, that pet owners might miss or overlook?
A: The answer is yes, and some of these signs you might not ordinarily associate with the GI system. “While diarrhea, vomiting and constipation are more acute symptoms, there are also more subtle signs including bad breath, runny poop, irregular bowel movements, low energy, dull coat and a disinterest in eating,” says Jasmine Galligan, founder of Wet Noses.
“Some less obvious signs that an animal’s gut is out of balance are skin and coat issues, allergies and lethargy,” adds Mika Wheelwright, CEO of Fidobiotics. Straining during bowel movements can be yet another red flag, as can eating grass and feces.
It’s important to take your animal to the veterinarian if you notice any of these signs on a regular basis. Some of these symptoms can also be associated with other health problems, but the only way to find out is by having your dog or cat checked.
Q: Do gut problems always arise from imbalances in gut flora? For example, can gut inflammation be caused solely by feeding the wrong foods (in the case of allergies or intolerances), or is it mainly affected by problems with the microbiome? Or is it a bit of both?
A: “This is an interesting question that is being actively studied,” say Drs. Ryan Honaker and Justin Shmalberg of NomNomNow. “Are gut imbalances the cause of disease, a response to underlying disease, or a combination? Allergies and infection are both known to cause inflammation, leading to a variety of short and long-term symptoms. However microbiome composition and function can also impact inflammation. Another example is cancer; the microbiome can have a direct impact on the risk of cancer development and tumor progression, both of which are also linked to inflammation. So the two are very closely intertwined, and in all likelihood most diseases will be a link between the two.”
Rei Kawano, Founder and CEO of Heed Foods, agrees that there’s a link between the microbiome and problems caused by poor nutrition. “What the animal eats as well as the environment he lives in has a significant influence on his microbiome makeup,” she says. “A healthy microbiome increases the probability of overall well-being. However, while the strain of the bacteria can evolve throughout the animal’s lifetime, the total bacterial population remains unchanged. This is evidence that while diet and environment can change the microbiome to a certain degree, it cannot change it completely. Other factors can also affect your pup’s overall gut health: age, obesity, environment – and, often overlooked, stress.”
Q: Which foods and ingredients have the most negative impact on dog or cat gut health, and why?
A: Not surprisingly, overly processed foods and synthetic ingredients top the list of substances that can have a negative impact on an animal’s microbiome and overall gut health. It makes perfect sense, since our animals’ bodies – and their gut flora — have evolved over millennia to thrive on whole foods; they’re not designed to properly digest artificial or overly-processed ingredients. “Dogs and cats don’t digest them properly,” says Barbara Fellnermayr, President of Amore Pet Foods. “You can see the result in their poop, breath, teeth, eyes and coat.”
Too much fat or protein can also disturb an animal’s digestion, as can rendered meat and bone meals, which are difficult to digest and offer limited nutrition, according to Dave Fedorchak, Vice President of R&D and Procurement at PetGuard. “Corn also presents a challenge, due to its tough cellulose coat,” he says.
Of course, many dogs and cats have specific food allergies or intolerances that can cause inflammation and may have a disruptive influence on gut flora and function. Some animals are allergic to common proteins, such as beef or even chicken, while wheat can be a problem for others. A visit to the vet will help you determine if your own dog or cat has a food allergy or intolerance, and which foods are the culprits.
Q: What foods and ingredients best support the microbiome?
A: Think natural high quality foods and you’re off to a good start. Minimally-processed diets made from whole food ingredients, with no artificial additives, are the best.
“Many whole food ingredients are natural prebiotics, meaning they feed and help establish good bacteria throughout the digestive tract,” adds Mika. “A lot of vegetables contain inulin, an important prebiotic, while oats and barley contain beta-glucan fibers, a great source of prebiotics.”
A range of individual foods also have a positive impact on digestion and overall gut health. “A high quality diet consisting of natural unadulterated foods can do a lot to promote a more balanced digestive tract,” says Dave. “Foods like sweet potatoes and flaxseed are rich in fiber, which is great for the digestive tract, and Omega-3 fatty acids help keep the gut microbiota diverse and healthy,” Pumpkin, yellow mustard, beets and thyme are also gut-healthy foods – “ground yellow mustard is a powerful anti-inflammatory,” says Cecelia Carrera of BrightPet Nutrition Group
Your dog or cat’s gut microbiome is a complex system that’s easily thrown out of whack by poor nutrition, especially nowadays when highly processed foods, synthetic ingredients and additives abound. By giving your animal whole, natural foods and supplements that keep his microbiome happy and balanced, you’ll help ensure that his gut – along with his whole being – stays healthy.
Amore Pet Foods, amorepetfoods.com
BrightPet Nutrition Group, brightpetnutrition.com
Heed Foods, heedfoods.com
Wet Noses, wet-noses.com