A hunting dog eating dog food with intestinal health probiotics.

The Importance of a Dog’s Intestinal Health

A look into the factors and issues with intestinal health in hunting dogs with sport dog Veterinarian specialist Joe Spoo

As dog owners, we often look at our dog’s bowel movements as a messy inconvenience that creates work for us. And while I do not enjoy picking up stools out in the yard any more than the next person, I do take advantage of the wealth of information provided twice daily in those little brown piles.

The eyes have been described as the windows into the soul, and while that may be debatable, there is no argument that the stools could be described as the information superhighway. The problem is deciphering the information provided to determine if a problem is present, and if there is a problem, what is the source.

Stool Can Flag Health Issues

A change in stools can occur with a number of conditions, ranging from parasites, infection, stress and stomach upset to more serious issues like liver disease, kidney disease and a host of internal disorders. This does not mean that you have to rush your dog in on emergency every time the stools change. However, by recognizing changes and the severity of the changes, it could aid you in maintaining the overall health of your dog.

Instead of looking at waste cleanup as an evil chore, look at this regular occurrence as instant feedback and monitoring of your dog’s overall health. With patients that do not talk there are a handful of big picture changes that we look at when trying to evaluate for disease. These include attitude, activity, eating, drinking, urination, vomiting and stool quality. The one that gives us a constant look at the inside of the dog is stool quality. Often changes in stool quality, consistency, frequency and character can be an early indicator of a problem. With all of that information presented daily via the feces, the vast majority of pet owners are usually unaware of their dog’s bathroom habits until a full-blown problem is present.

It’s important to understand the function of the intestinal tract in order to fully appreciate the importance of maintaining intestinal health. Too often we look at it as a transport system for food through the body, and while this is important, there are a number of other equally important functions.

A healthy, functioning intestinal tract is necessary for the breakdown and absorption of nutrients. You may be feeding the highest quality food in the world, but if the intestinal tract is not functioning properly it won’t get utilized. In addition to nutrients, the intestinal tract is vital to water balance and hydration. Interestingly, the colon plays an important role in water absorption, and it is for this reason that dogs with diarrhea issues can quickly become dehydrated.

One of the most important functions of the digestive tract is its function in the immune system. It serves as the body’s first line of defense against disease. This can serve to protect the body from outside invaders, but when it malfunctions it can also cause issues of its own with conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and food sensitivities.

One of the last points to consider is that the intestinal tract is also influenced by the other major systems in the body, and this is the reason why stool quality can be an indicator of internal disease. That is why it’s important to determine if the cause of stool issues are related to intestinal causes (parasite, bacteria, viruses, dietary) or from outside of the intestine (liver, kidneys, etc.), because the treatment of the various conditions will vary greatly.

An important point that is often overlooked is that a dog doesn’t necessarily have to be suffering from full-blown diarrhea in order to be experiencing the ill effects of poor intestinal health. Many owners look at large quantities of semi-formed stool as an inconvenience to them when they should be considering the impact this is having on their dogs. Maintaining normal stools is important in maintaining normal overall health. If your dog is not having relatively small, firm, normal colored stools it is vitally important to find out why and remedy the problem.

Fiber and Digestive Health

The discussion on diarrhea would fill a textbook, so instead of looking at what to do with each individual problem we will take a look at what to do in order to maintain digestive health and to restore normal health after minor stomach upset.

One of the most overlooked areas of dog food selection is the fiber source and amount in the food. Too often fiber is looked at as a filler and not as a functional component of the food. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The intestinal bacteria ferment fiber, and the byproducts of this fermentation process can provide an energy source for the intestinal cells. The most important products of fiber fermentation are short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids can result in more and healthier intestinal cells, aid in gut motility, increase gut blood flow, and can help in preventing diarrhea by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria while inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria.

As with anything, all fiber sources are not created equal. A fiber source that is not fermentable will not provide any of the above benefits, while a fiber source that is too fermentable will cause problems with excess by-products. The key is to look for a moderately-fermentable fiber source. One of the best moderately-fermentable fibers is beet pulp, which some have termed the “silver bullet” in maintaining intestinal health.

A key component of the maintenance of GI health is the balance of good versus bad bacteria. There are two key factors in maintaining this balance. The first is fructooligosaccharides (FOS) which are more commonly referred to as prebiotics. FOS is a short chain of sugar molecules that is used by the good bacteria of the intestinal tract but is not used well by the bad bacteria. These are used to try to maintain intestinal balance.

Probiotics and Intestinal Health

The second factor is probiotics. In recent years probiotics have gotten a lot of interest as a way to maintain intestinal health. Essentially they are live organisms that are fed in order to help maintain or replenish healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract while outcompeting the bad bacteria. The theory is that we are providing more of the good bacteria to the dog. The benefits of these products are many, and when used correctly they can shorten the duration of diarrhea and help maintain and restore a healthy intestinal tract.

Unfortunately these products are also an area of much conflict, due to the quality and benefit of the products on the market. A Canadian Veterinary Journal article looked at 19 pet food diets labeled to contain probiotics. When the diets were analyzed, only seven of the diets contained at least one of the bacteria listed while NONE contained all of the bacteria listed. Similar studies have looked at over-the-counter products for humans and animals labeled to contain probiotics and found similar inconsistent results in the products.

Does this mean all probiotic products are a scam? Absolutely not. But it does mean that as a consumer you need to know what you are buying. You will want to identify the organism(s) in the product and the number of organisms expected in the product, often listed as CFU. The benefits of probiotics are many, and include impacting the entire body and not just the digestive tract. The important point is to make sure you are actually feeding a probiotic when you make your purchase.

As you can see there are a number of things you can do daily to maintain intestinal tract health. Too often we want to reach for the dewormer or antibiotics when a problem crops up when we would be better off leaving those on the shelf and set our goals to maintaining a healthy GI tract from the beginning.

One of the most despised tasks of pet ownership, cleaning up feces, is actually one of the most important sources of daily information on our pets. This article won’t make it any more enjoyable, but it may make it more informative the next time you head out to clean out the kennel or pick up the yard. Just how healthy is your dog’s intestinal tract?

Read more articles on: Hunting Dog Health and First Aid

Last modified: May 29, 2020

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