Gut Health: Why it’s Crucial for Your Pet’s Wellbeing

Gut Health for Pets

You’ve seen the probiotic commercials on TV -- you know, the ones that tell us to eat yogurt for a healthy gut. Turns out, overall health starts from the inside. More specifically, from a healthy gut.

That’s true for our pets, too. But what exactly constitutes a “healthy gut”? 

Today we’ll take a closer look at what it means to have a healthy gut, and how you can help your pet have one, too. Continue reading for answers to these common gut health questions:

What is a healthy gut?

A healthy gut is full of bacteria -- good bacteria (probiotics). It’s also full of immune cells, which ward off infections caused by bacteria (bad bacteria), viruses and fungi. 

There are more bacteria than immune cells in the body. That’s a lot of bacteria. The good bacteria found in your pet’s gut are there to help him digest and absorb nutrients from his food. 

Sidebar: One bacterium reproduces to create an entire community of bacteria. 

Good bacteria are continually reproducing, taking up all that valuable real estate so that the bad bacteria doesn’t have room to grow.

A healthy gut also sends health-related messages to the brain via nerves and hormones. So when things are off balance, the gut will let the brain know something’s not quite right.

Why is a healthy gut important for my pet’s overall health?

When your pet’s microbiome is balanced, it’s easier for him to:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Absorb nutrients from food
  • Maintain a strong immune system
  • Stabilize mood
  • Maintain healthy skin & coat
  • Remain healthy well into his golden years

What is a microbiome?

When we refer to the microbiome, we’re talking about bacteria in the digestive tract. Just like all the other bacteria in the body, the microbiome plays a critical role in keeping your pet healthy.

Like us, our furry friends have their own unique microbiome. And when it’s off balance, it can cause your pet to develop allergies, diabetes, anxiety and all kinds of other health issues (we’ll talk about those shortly).

Before your pet was born, his gut was sterile. The first--and most important--dose of gut bacteria was delivered by his mother. The bacteria your pet was born with will contribute to his overall health for the rest of his life. That’s the genetic component of gut health.

But there are outside elements that will affect the microbiome, too. Things like age, diet and medications (particularly antibiotics) can also influence the microbiome. 

What effects do antibiotics have on the microbiome?

First, we’re not against the use of antibiotics. We believe there is a time and a place for all sorts of medical treatments. And sometimes an antibiotic can mean the difference between life and death. So it’s all about risk:reward.

Having said that, we also believe that antibiotics are sometimes prescribed a little haphazardly by some vets. 

Antibiotics kill off harmful bacteria that cause infection or illness. The problem is that antibiotics also kill the good bacteria your pet needs to naturally fight off the bad bacteria.

By killing all the bacteria, antibiotics can cause rapid changes in the microbiome. Why does that matter? Because it can take up to a year for the microbiome to recover from a simple two-week course of antibiotics. 

Always talk to your vet about the risks vs rewards of any treatment plan. Together you can make the best decision for your pet’s unique situation.

How can I tell if my pet has a healthy gut?

Since overall health begins with gut health, it’s safe to say that if your pet is healthy, so is his gut. But that’s a pretty generic statement. Let’s dig deeper.

When your pet’s microbiome is unbalanced, health issues may arise, like:

  • Diarrhea
  • Diabetes
  • Gum disease 
  • Skin problems
  • Allergies
  • Anxiety 

How can I help my pet improve his gut health?

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to improve your pet’s gut health. And if you haven’t guessed by now, it all starts with the microbiome.

To recap:

Unhealthy microbiome: When the good bacteria (probiotics) are lacking (making room for bad bacteria), the microbiome isn’t at its best. It’s this unbalance that causes health problems.

Balanced, healthy microbiome: When the microbiome has lots of good bacteria to ward off the growth of bad bacteria, it’s doing its job to keep your pet healthy inside and out.

The simplest, most effective way to balance your pet’s microbiome is by making changes to his diet

Increase fibre

To keep him - ahem - regular (keep his digestive tract flowing).

Decrease sugar

Fructose and glucose can stop the production of proteins that encourage the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Too much sugar also causes inflammation, and can lead to obesity and insulin resistance.

Add bone broth

To improve the gut lining’s permeability and help with nutrient absorption. It’s also a great immune system booster. Making your own bone broth is super easy, too:

  1. Fill a crockpot with bones (like chicken feet or beef bone marrow)
  2. Cover the bones with water (plus 2 inches)
  3. Add ¼ cup of raw apple cider vinegar
  4. Let it cook overnight (up to 24 hours is fine!)
  5. Remove the bones & add in any tasty veggies your pet loves 
  6. Let the broth cool to room temp then pop it in the fridge for a few hours
  7. Skim the fat off the top & serve the yummy jelly-like broth!

Add natural probiotic-rich foods

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Bananas
  • Honey
  • Kimchi 
  • Jerusalem artichokes 

FUN FACT: The Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke, nor is it from Jerusalem! It’s also called sunroot, sunchoke or earth apple. It’s a sunflower from central North America.

If your pet has a lactose intolerance, you can opt for dairy products made with coconut or almond milk.

You may see garlic, leeks, chives, scallions and onions on probiotic-rich foods for humans, but beware … 

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, garlic and other members of the allium family contain thiosulfate, which can be toxic to dogs and cats, but not to humans. Thiosulfate can cause oxidative damage to red blood cells, which results in hemolytic anemia. 

Sidebar: There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not garlic is safe for pets. The AKC has a post about it here

Pet Supplements for Gut Health

Another super simple way to help heal the microbiome is to include a dietary supplement. Look for pet health supplements that contain plant-based enzymes, such as ...

  • Cellulase
  • Hemicellulase
  • Papain

 … and other ingredients, such as:

  • Zinc
  • L-glutamine
  • Selenium 
  • Copper
  • BioChromium Yeast

Here are some popular pet supplements trusted by your fellow pet parents:

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