I’d like to introduce a new perspective on how we view the health of dogs and why we need to start thinking differently to truly act in their best interest. The real concept of “gut health” is a complex topic, but one worth sharing. We are going to discuss this in detail over four articles to make this topic manageable. Each article will go in-depth into the most influential players involved in achieving gut health and how we as owners can take real steps today to apply this information. Let the journey begin!
For approximately 22 years, the agricultural community has made gut health a priority for chickens and pigs, inspiring standards and best practices. Why not dogs? Dogs share the same monogastric digestive system setup as swine, poultry, and even humans. Canines are used in research studies to better understand insulin’s role in diabetes and other human health conditions. Perhaps because there’s a lag in research and a bigger gap in the application, maybe because kibble marketing is very strategically vague, or even because production animals are considered a revenue-generating commodity while dogs… not so much.
But whether your dogs are on the ranch, in the ring, out on the field, or at the foot of your bed—and whether yours suffer from frequent vet visits or unexplained allergies–it’s time to ask some hard questions. It’s time to learn more about them from the inside out and to educate ourselves on what it takes to raise healthy, high-performance dogs.
General Gut Health
All diseases start in the gut.
Sound familiar? It’s a pretty common phrase on the farm… and it’s usually the truth.
However, these livestock owners are usually talking about swine and poultry, not dogs. So why should dog owners listen to production animal nutritionists and scientific experts?
A dog’s stomach is a pretty hostile environment and food is a major factor. But we’re not talking about a tummy ache. Poor gut health impacts a dog’s skin, coat, immune system, metabolism, and even reproduction system. To say the gut’s role in total health is complex would not begin to explain its level of influence. For example, CCL Research, a credible source in the agro-food industry, showed that when young piglets were challenged with E.coli K88 strain bacteria, better existing gut health resulted in:
- The increased recovery rate from clinical diarrhea symptoms
- Prevented excess weight loss due to decreased nutrient absorption
- Decreased reproduction of the E. coli bacteria source inside the gut
Limiting the scope of influential players in the gut environment would be a further disservice to the body of knowledge. Traditional research, by its nature, is always looking to limit variables and refine experimental outcomes down to direct response. Inherently there is nothing wrong with this approach when interrogating a known or mostly known pathway, like A+B=C. The flaws of this approach are exposed when we don’t know all the players involved and the greater network of reactions span an entire organism, such as gut health. The attempts to address each factor as an individual is a faulty approach, which is shared by even the top canine researchers. What I’d like to highlight, is that most canine studies addressing the concept of gut health fail to address the factors of highly-processed dry kibble diets, the role pH balancing plays in the small intestine, or digestion efficiency factors.
Additional factors that are still scientifically undecided is how to measure and decipher what is meaningful change! What should medical professionals test to differentiate between healthy and diseased conditions in dogs? Could Veterinarians determine when antibiotic treatment would do more harm than good? Next Generation Sequencing, is helping research leaders map and understand the complex interactions that occur in the gut between all players. Gut health is often associated with discussions surrounding probiotics. The role of pre-and pro-biotics, plus their synergist roles, are very well researched in all species. Texas A&M researcher, Jan Suchodolski, is a leader of canine research in probiotics usage with companion animal studies. His colleagues and students are building the existing body of knowledge to map the role of gut microbes in helping improve intestinal disease conditions, where microbes are potentially more influential than drug treatment.
Dr. Suchodolski is further connecting the lines demonstrating that microbes at specific locations in the upper small intestine directly impact bile acid production level and recycling. This relationship with these microbes is disrupted when killed by antibiotics. Common treatment protocols can induce or worsen diarrhea conditions when the microbial gut population is altered. This disrupted microbe condition is called dysbiosis. It’s amazing how little we actually know and even more concerning that the real impacts of antibiotic usage are not fully understood. We will dig deeper into the probiotics, prebiotics, and the synergistic effect they have on gut health in Article 2. If you would like to catch up on 20 years of research, you will want to read the next article!
Foundation-level research, in humans and animals, shows a direct impact of maternal nutrition before and during the stages of pregnancy can influence permanent changes in the offspring. What kind you ask? These would include changes in body structure, physiology, and metabolism just to name a few of the important changes studied. Dr. Milo Wiltbank, professor of reproduction physiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a leader in reproductive physiology in dairy animals.
His novel research demonstrates a significant link between gut health (in this case, methionine availability) and reproduction rates. His study showed a 13.5% increase in dairy cow pregnancy rates via artificial insemination. The improvement in dietary methionine, an amino acid from protein, aided in both embryo size and implantation development rate pre-breeding. Additional studies conducted by Wiltbank and others, further reveal the importance of the effects of low protein availability in cows pre-artificial implantation (AI) period caused abnormal embryo development, altered birth weight, and postnatal growth rate.
Consider a poor semen quality scenario in your dog. This might include low volume and low motility. Did the vet suggest vitamins? Maybe indoor quarters? Deworming? These are all attacking symptoms that result from poor nutrient absorption (either poor digestion or poor diet), all a consequence of a poor gut health environment involving multiple factors of the gut system (see Figure 1 above). Once the major factors of the gut environment are addressed, then reproduction problems soon reverse allowing middle age (5-8 years) and older aged (>10 years) dogs to reproduce naturally.
The need for quality nutrients to increase availability, cannot be stressed enough! Overall, large amounts of research in beef, swine, and poultry show a consistent relationship that nutrition (an influencer of gut health) plays in pre and post-breeding of animals improving reproduction rates. Gut health implication affects offspring development starting early in life. What can we learn and apply from this understanding? That the quality of available nutrition in a dog’s diet, especially protein, plays a big role in reproduction mechanisms and longevity. The need for supplementation of a better available protein source for females pre-breeding and during pregnancy can benefit embryo development while decreasing the chances of reabsorption events. Both male and female diets should be a point of focus before planned breeding is to occur to increase maximum success rates, especially if AI is being considered.
One area that little, if any, attention is given concerns early puppy gut health development. Specifically between birth to 4 weeks. Yes, their gut health status and early development need to be a point of concern. The same rules that apply to adult dogs apply to young stock as well. Where things get interesting are the concepts of early (neonatal) immunity development for lifelong performance and programming lifetime health via early gut health optimization. With my 13-year involvement in training, feeding, showing, and working dogs I have never heard of these concepts applied to dogs outside of my own uses. Why shouldn’t puppy gut health be more of a focus? Newborn animal gut health is a critical life stage that production animal experts start addressing from the first minutes of birth.
It’s so important that it has its own field of research! Corporations pour a lot of money into improving the gut microbial population in animals at this stage. Those efforts focus on environmental conditions, nutrition, and gut health development. Think about how little advancement the dog industry gives to actually understanding adult dog gut health with little to no focus on puppy gut health. Now imagine how often we miss opportunities for advancement by only focusing on the physical stimulation (Super Dog sensory development) aspects of raising puppies. I strongly feel we could see a greater improvement in our dog’s genetic potential, in all areas, if we begin empowering owners with new information, a new mindset to gut health, and a better food source for dogs.
Digestion & Immunity
Digestion is the most energy-consuming function of a system. It takes more energy than running, swimming, or bike riding from a human activity perspective. There must be sufficient amounts of energy available if dogs are to digest, absorb and remove waste from the body. The gut is the source of replenishing energy stores. Although not often discussed, the power of digestive enzymes is paramount in this process.
Here’s how it works:
Dogs, like humans, make digestive enzymes on demand. These aid in the breakdown of food sources, which release nutrients that your dog needs to thrive. But dogs make only two types of these enzymes, protease, and lipase. Since dogs were designed to eat prey-type animals, neither of these enzymes break down the plant-based ingredients common in all dry kibble. To make it more complicated, think about the preservatives used to stabilize pet food and in the oils to protect product shelf life by preventing decomposition. Without this breakdown, nutrients are not reduced or made available for absorption, and the impact is huge. Energy recovery lags, and the immune system slows—and that impacts not only fighting disease but every aspect of the animal, even the brain activity changes. This leaves dogs vulnerable to bad bacteria (E.coli, Salmonella), viruses, sluggish behavior, illness, and poor physical performance.
Think about this from the perspective of conditioning a sled dog, weight-pull training, or even confirmation ring preparation. In preparation and training for these physical events, we ask a lot of the dog. The increased physical stress requires energy immediately, the recovery process from exercise requires energy, and increased food intake requires additional energy to process. Then seasonal weather conditions bring immune system stress from pathogens/viruses, as does exposure risks traveling to event sites, which brings additional energy taxing needs regardless if you see the physical symptoms or not. We can now see how the energy recovery demand is heavily dependent on digestion, more so on digestion efficiency! There is a term used globally that best describes efficiency outcomes, but you won’t know it. It’s unlikely that you would have seen it on any dog forum thread either. It’s called Total Digestible Nutrition or TDN.
Which is a calculation based on ingredients. It can be surrounded by other terms like Food Conversion Ratios (FCR) and amino acid absorption curves. If you are hearing about these terms for the first time, don’t they sound insightful or important to formulating animal food? Well, it’s talked about the world over in all species, except canines! Stay tuned to learn more about how we can apply TDN and FCR to canines in Article 4 of the No Guts, No Glory article series.
The digestion-Immunity link. An animal’s immune system is also a large customer of energy. In production animals, we call a low-level immune response a “silent-bleeder” of weight gain revenue, because of the extra energy demand in addition to digestive energy demands. During an inadequate/compromised digestive condition (many factors apply, see Figure 1), digestion requires more energy and requires more enzymes. Since digestive enzymes are produced on demand and in a limited volume, the immune system is weakened further by inefficient digestion. Couple poor nutrition, poor digestion efficiency with high energy demands from illness and you have the perfect cocktail for net negative energy! That is a prime weakened condition for illness. How many times have we ourselves been sick, but not sick enough to keep us from work? For all intents and purposes, we look fine, but we know we are sick and usually crash as soon as we get home. The same conditions apply to humans, dogs, and production animals.
Bottom line? These are the digestion and immune system hidden energy costs our dogs, and ourselves, experience but don’t realize. Digestive enzymes play a big role in the battle for good gut health through direct support for digestive efficiency to extract maximum energy. I’d go even further by saying that digestive enzyme support is the missing puzzle piece to achieving the best feeding strategy for working dogs. More information and usage examples to come in Article 3: Digestive Enzymes –The Missing Link in Gut Health Efficiency.
Various allergies, allegedly, impact a quarter of all dogs in the United States. But are allergies the actual issue or a symptom of a different problem? Sadly, allergies are the scapegoat answer of many medical professionals to explain away hot spots, skin infections, hair loss, numerous skin conditions, yeast infections (ears and feet), intestinal issues, and more. Unfortunately, suggested solutions—food changes, bathing, oatmeal shampoo, and medication all attack the symptom rather than the root cause, which is, you guessed it, gut health. Watch an episode of House MD on Netflix to see what root cause discovery (aka problem-solving) looks like! It is never the first handful of diagnoses and is always a complex interaction of many factors. Then why the narrowed approach?
We don’t need to be a doctor or TV personality to solve problems. Just knowledge, elbow grease, and ideas for application. Research papers as far back as 1930 suspected a link between the gut and the skin. All research to date only reinforces the gut–skin relationship. Dr. Chris Kresser, who specializes in human dermatological issues and avid writer, supports this concept. His philosophy focus can be explained by “heal your gut, heal your skin.” Since the processing of food is what the canine gut does, then we can correctly assume canine diets directly impact the skin and coat quality of the dog. No surprise there, right? Let us apply a real-world scenario. We are led to believe that a shiny coat means a healthy dog. Inside and out, right? This is one of the biggest misconceptions reinforced by marketing agendas and pet owners are failing to connect the dots. The fat source in highly processed food diets that use rendered chicken fat, and similar ingredients to boost calorie density (e.g. dry kibble), is excreted out of the dog’s skin as the body works to remove it.
That oil discharge exits via the skin and gets on their coat. This excretion of an inappropriate fat source is a leading cause of skin pore issues and creates the perfect breeding ground for opportunistic fungal or bacteria species to thrive in. Think acne issues in humans. Quick tip if you want to test this. Pour bacon grease, which is rendered pork fat, on all the food you eat for a few days, and don’t bathe. See how many compliments you get on your glorious shiny hair and flawless-glowing skin. Then imagine eating only that for your entire life! Think how this would affect the odor of your dog as their bodies are constantly excreting this bacon-grease-like product all the time. Can you say… dog smell?
Further, allergies in dogs that we can observe, at face value, have deeper implications. Conditions of dermatitis, hives, skin ulcers, and folliculitis all have roots that stem from the gut. Dr. Kresser and other experts go further in their research to point out that poor gut health draws connections to allergies/food intolerances due to inflammation responses of dietary ingredients in the intestines. More specifically the cell walls that make up the lining of the intestinal tract. Low-level intolerance responses can create local inflammation in that part of the gut or be responsible for an entire systemic-wide response in the body (e.g. hives, hair loss). In either case, an immune response is created. The difference in severity ranges from diarrhea to classified disease states like Creon’s, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or Celiac’s. I hope we can start to create the picture that what our dogs eat truly impacts their health. I’d like to go further to stress that these conditions, in my experience, are a result of inappropriate ingredients and non-nutrient-available food sources.
What’s a Dog Owner To Do?
Let’s move beyond “survive” and get to “thrive”, a move towards managing the gut environment of our dogs. Better gut health points to healthier and heartier animals meeting their full genetic potential.
When it comes to your dog, nutrition is more than just a strategy, it has to be a mindset. Protein is the biggest ingredient that gets a lot of attention from dog owners, but we are warned about this near hyper-focus on one ingredient. “Crude protein is a parameter that blinds our eyes,” says Dr. Charles Schwab, Professor Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire. “We must consider not only the protein requirement of the animal but also the required load of the microbes (gut bacteria).” When feeding dogs according to their species design, a raw or close as possible to raw element is ideal.
Dr. Schwab insists that although swine and poultry nutritionists have long understood this, it has yet to be applied to feeding bovine, let alone canines. That’s a powerful statement and one that we should heed in decisions concerning the primary food source for our dogs. The ideal inclusion of highly digestible protein for the animal and protein source for the microbes, like a pre-biotic, can meet the warning relayed to us by Dr. Schwab.
The availability and rate of production of digestive enzymes from the dog are critical to achieving high completion rates of digestibility. We learned earlier in the article that digestive enzymes can be wasted on non-nutritional ingredients. The reduced energy creation starts the downhill slide to negative energy imbalance, that in-turn, starts a cascade of deeper negative system conditions. What we can do, which is also backed by good scientific literature, is to supplement with digestive enzymes to increase feeding efficiencies in time of digestion and completeness, thus improving the entire feedback mechanisms. Article 3 of this series will go more into this point.
Food source and its digestion efficiency level affect the pH of the stomach, the initial discharge of food comes into the small intestine and downstream parts of the intestines. 224 scientific publications on probiotics paint a decent picture of the gut microbial population’s role in helping digestion as well as overall health. But…if gut environment conditions are not ideal, then it is less likely a probiotic supplementation will be of any use. The take-home messages that we can apply are these:
- Probiotic supplementation can help build a gut microbial population
- More diversity in bugs present in the population, the higher the beneficial effect
- Better survivability of the probiotics help build new populations
- Probiotics and existing gut microbe populations help regulate gut pH conditions
- Supporting good bugs will help prevent bad bugs from growing
Enter Rogue Dog Feed’s Dark Horse supplement. Their high-inclusion feed supplement is changing the game with their concept of precision nutrition. The groundbreaking Dark Horse supplement provides a beneficial and highly digestible protein source (96% digestible) to support the health and performance needs of the dog. The natural oil properties of the omega-6 fats found in the Menhaden fish protein used further provide essential fatty acids to boost the conditioning of the dog and gut health. Dark Horse further supports high digestibility through the inclusion of digestive enzymes to assist the dog’s normal body function as well as digest either raw diet ingredients or kibble-based feeding.
Thus, more energy is extracted to keep and maintain a net positive energy state. The role of pre-biotics and pro-biotics is not forgotten! Both are included to provide proven synergist benefits focused on supporting a healthy gut environment. The added benefit of butyric acid, a true advancement in canine nutrition, is included for additional pH support and to jump-start the shift to positive gut health. Think of it as a pre-conditioner before the fertilizer (pre-biotics) and probiotics start their jobs.
The more you learn about what’s good for the gut, the better dog-food decision-maker you can be.