Five minutes into your dinner party, your dog meanders in to greet your guests. Seconds after he enters the room, he plops down and scoots his boot for about 2 feet and then stops to lick his paws or scratch an ear. The symptoms are more than embarrassingly obvious, but the root cause is often missed: gut health.
“Twenty-seven years ago, when I graduated from vet school and began practicing, there was no take on the microbiome or probiotics at the time,” explained James Southard Jr., DVM. “As science progressed, we began to realize how the microbiome is woven into the fabric of our well-being,”
From his practice at Air Harbor Veterinary Clinic in West Ashley, Dr. Southard has witnessed the effects of imbalances of the microbiome in dogs and the signals that something is amiss may surprise you.
“The obvious signs are digestive upsets: bloating, gas and diarrhea,” Dr. Southard noted. “But we’re also watchful for inflammatory skin conditions. Scratching at the ears, licking feet, rectal itching and even food allergies tell us, even without digestive issues, that something is wrong in the gut.”
“All allergies are simply inflammation,” Dr. Southard revealed, explaining the process in simple terms. “Your dog’s body’s response to pathogens or stress is to protect itself, so cells get angry and release inflammatory mediators. If the microbiome is in good shape, it won’t overreact or cause inflammation that triggers the allergy response.”
Both “good” and “bad” bacteria dwell in a dogs’ microbiome. An overpopulation of “good” can lead to digestive issues, too much of the “bad” drives inflammation that instigates innumerable diseases, including cancer. This imbalance is called “dysbiosis.”
“Seventy to 80% of one’s immune system cells live in the gut, so any sort of imbalance can affect your dog’s health,” Dr. Southard said.
A healthy diet, exercise and regular checkups should be all a dog needs to keep its tummy in tiptop shape, but factors such as age, illness, medications and environment contribute to dysbiosis.
“We glean a lot of information during a routine visit, especially when discussing the dog’s history. Skin issues and definitely the “scoot,” Dr. Southard said, “are signs that your dog’s microbiome is out of balance.”
Dr. Southard believes that having a diverse microbiome is key for your dog’s overall health. Exposure to different foods and surroundings can help enrich the animal’s microbiome and make it more resilient. On the topic of food, Dr. Southard encourages variety.
“Dogs given an array of different things in small amounts become acclimated and their microbiome becomes more flexible. I’ll even give my own dogs small amounts of table scraps,” Dr. Southard laughed. “Never as a meal of course – just a few bites. I’m of the school of thought that as long as it doesn’t make them sick, it’s all right for dogs to eat ‘people food,’ with the caveat that the food is checked for toxicity.”
“If a dog eats the same thing all the time, its microbiome can get upset at the introduction of something new. Introduce something strange and it upsets the apple cart,” Dr. Southard disclosed.
“Dogs do need dog food though,” Dr. Southard warned. “Dog food has been designed by boarded veterinary nutritionists, so it’s always going to have the proper balance of things such as trace minerals and vitamins that we just can’t replicate at home.”
Exposure to environments outside the home also aid in diversifying the gut.
“From the moment we are born, we are developing our microbiome. Our first source is our mother. We pick up bacteria from her skin, and that carries on throughout our lives. It’s the same with our pets,” Dr. Southard stated. “Our gut is the training ground for our immune system, and exposing your dog to a range of places allows for a strengthening of the microbiome.”
This exposure factor may be a two-way street. When asked about a 2013 study that revealed children living in households with furry pets had more diverse microbiomes and less risk of developing allergies later in life, Dr. Southard wasn’t surprised.
“I haven’t read it, but it makes sense,” he chuckled. “A dog introduced into your house may have a bacterium that is unique to it, and it can benefit the household. Kids used to play outside, play with animals and picked up a wide variety of microorganisms – both good and bad.”
Exercise and Stress
Recent studies illustrate that exercise benefits gut health in several ways – increased population of beneficial microbes, increased diversity and improved metabolism among them. But Dr. Southard revealed there’s an even simpler reason exercise has a positive effect on the microbiome: happiness.
“Exercise and play are good for dogs because those actions manage overall stress. If your stress is low, if you’re happy, it benefits your biome,” Dr. Southard disclosed.
“When you’re stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol. In normal levels, that isn’t a bad thing. In excess, however, it affects the gut biome and lowers the immune system’s ability to do its job,” he pointed out. “It’s why, when you bring home a new puppy, they’ll sometimes have loose stool. The stress of having been taken from their mother triggers a cortisol release, and it causes digestive upset. They adjust as they get to know their new home, just as their microbiome does.”
Antibiotics, though sometimes necessary, are notorious for disrupting the microbiome.
“All of these microorganisms are scrambling for real estate. They claim it, then defend it, jockeying for position within the microbiome,” Dr. Southard said. “Antibiotics can indiscriminately clear out and kill parts of the neighborhood and ‘bad’ neighbors can take their place, upsetting the balance.”
Dr. Southard said there are ways to mitigate the negative effects of antibiotics.
“When we introduce antibiotics to the system to fight a serious infection, say a 21-day course of Cephalexin for something like a staph infection of the skin, we know we’ll upset the balance in the gut. We’ll send some probiotics home with the patient and suggest prebiotics, as well, things like beet pulp and canned pumpkin.”
If your dog is generally healthy, Dr. Southard advised that there are a few factors to consider when contemplating adding a probiotic supplement to its diet.
“While it certainly won’t hurt to keep your dog on probiotics all the time, if they are healthy and on a quality diet, they shouldn’t need to be on them,” Dr. Southard said.
“Some dog food manufacturers are adding probiotics to some of their diets now,” he responded further. “However, the heating process often kills those off. If you’re going to use them, it’s best to use them as supplements. Sick pets, particularly those with gut issues, will also benefit from their use.”
“Of course, it’s a good idea to put dogs on them a few days prior to stressful situations like boarding, grooming or traveling,” Dr. Southard offered. “Remember, gut health is all about balance.”
Source: Azad et al. 2013. “Infant Gut Microbia and the Hygiene Hypothesis of Allergic Disease: Impact on Household Pets.”
By Amy Gesell