The Digestive Tract
From the mouth to the bowel, a healthy digestive tract is the foundation of health. The "best" diet is only as good as what the dog can digest well so that nutrients are absorbed. In some cases, the digestive tract is compromised by disease, quality of foods and supplements, or genetic predisposition. The good news is that most dogs benefit and respond well to a dietary approach that considers individual needs.
Allergy or Intolerance?
A food allergy is an immune system response to an otherwise harmless food. Antibodies identify the food every time it's consumed. Histamine and chemicals are released. Allergy can be the cause of excessive scratching, chewing paws, yeast overgrowth, skin eruptions, sloppy stool and other symptoms.
A food intolerance is a physiological response that does not affect the immune system and may not have any apparent reason. While diagnosing the difference between allergy and intolerance has clinical relevance, relief is the goal!
Finding The Problem
Things are not always as they seem. Parasites can cause gastrointestinal problems. Some parasites shed in cycles so that one fecal check may be perfectly clear while another, just 1-2 weeks later may show something quite different. To make this a little more challenging, other diseases can manifest as gastrointestinal problems and bacterial overgrowths are not as uncommon as you may have heard. As always, your first stop, and perhaps second and third, should be to visit your vet. Once the more serious issues been ruled out, there are steps you can take to make life better for your dog.
Gut Health Should Be a Priority
Stomach, small intestine, and colon functions are usually taken for granted by people observing their dogs doing what seems natural - eating. But once we understand the processes involved and how critical they are to survival, we begin to think about the importance of maintaining a healthy gut. I’m a big believer in acidophilus and although my reasons will take time to explain, I encourage you to read and think about the following. L-glutamine is a supplement that I believe in also, although I use it for more specific reasons as explained below.
The stomach’s first role is to accept and store food. Glands present in the lining of the stomach start to respond by producing stomach or gastric acid. The wall of the stomach contains muscle which helps to move acid and food around until they are blended. Now that they are thoroughly mixed, the acid helps to break food down even further into fragments that are more easily digested. Food leaving the stomach is a cream-like liquid called chyme. The lower part of the stomach has muscles that push this partly digested food toward the small intestine.
As food passes through the small intestine, it’s mixed with chemicals produced by the liver/gallbladder and pancreas. At this point it’s small enough to be used by the body which is perhaps why I think of the small intestine as being a hero. Not only does it do what I’ve described above, but the walls of this long tube are home to tiny finger-like projections called villi. Capillaries (small blood vessels) in the villi are able to absorb tiny food molecules which are carried to the rest of the body through the blood. Whatever cannot be used by the body is sent to the large intestine where water is removed and waste is sent to the colon.
Within the gut, we find a variety of microflora (bacteria). The much lower level of bifidobacteria found in canines than in other animals is significant. Application of Lactobacillus acidophilus in canines resulted in a significant increase in the population of recoverable lactobacilli in the feces with a concomitant decrease in the clostridia (bacteria that should be kept under control) population. Immune-function studies showed significant increases in serum IgG, monocytes, and neutrophils. Researchers found that the probiotic resulted in positive changes in the gut microbiology and in systemic effects that suggested positive immune system stimulation. This has not been the case with some other probiotics.
The bacterial population within the gastrointestinal tract of mammals acts as a significant barrier to infection by pathogenic microorganisms. Given that healthy gut function is critical to absorption of nutrients, thus life itself it makes good sense to keep it robust. Acidophilus has been proven to be a top notch probiotic for dogs which is why I believe in using it rather than other types. However, the balance of microflora remains under investigation and what seems like a good thing can be overdone. Dogs that have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth usually respond well to acidophilus. Healthy dogs can make good use of acidophilus as well, but in these cases, I suggest providing it once or twice weekly.
L-Glutamine is a component of cells that are plentiful in the epithelial lining of the gastrointestinal tract. When we consider the information above as it pertains to the functions of the gut, we see that this supplement can benefit dogs with gastrointestinal problems.
As a point of interest for dog owners who want to feed yogurt rather an acidophilus supplement, be aware it would have to be fed in massive amounts to provide the proven benefit of a good supplement. For this reason I use the acidophilus on my site (for the human family members too), and prefer it because it’s a powder rather than a capsule. But whatever your choice of product may be, make sure the organisms are viable, the strength of the product is what the label claims, and that it’s truly free of dairy products. Despite label claims, it wasn’t long ago that a product which was supposedly milk-free made headlines due to some people ending up in the hospital after taking it. These folks were allergic to milk and as it turned out, lab tests showed there were traces of milk product in the probiotic. You don’t need to be scared. You just need to be cautious and buy a product that has a good reputation. Focusing on maintaining gut health has every possibility of your dog reaping good rewards long term.
What You Can Do
Your first step is to make a diet change. Use one novel protein and one novel carbohydrate (grain or vegetable) for 8 weeks. These must be foods that your dog has never eaten before - not even one bite. Nothing else is fed during this time. No supplements and no treats that contain anything other than the two new foods.
Tannins (found in Antioxidant Booster) helps some cases of diarrhea. Digestive Enzymes or Plant Digestive Enzymes can benefit some dogs and may be a good adjunct to the correct diet. Remember that "correct" needs to be based on what a dog tolerates rather than on a certain belief system of what the dog "should" tolerate.
L-Glutamine is a supplement that can help to rebuild healthy tissues in the digestive tract and some dogs benefit from it immensely.
For Further Reading
Optimal Nutrition: This book provides extended discussion, explanations and walks the reader through diet plans.
Acidophilus Treatments for Persistent Diarrhea by Dr. D Gaon - Acidophilus can help control problem diarrhea
The Probiotic E. faecium Causes Problems by Dr. W Vahjen et al Not all probiotics help. In fact, E. faecium (found in several probiotics) increases salmonella and campylobacter in healthy dogs
Bacteria in the Gut by Dr. RA Rastall Acidophilus probiotics improve immune function
Diagnosis of Infectious Diarrhea in Dogs and Cats by Stanley Marks- A review of three bacteria that cause infectious diarrhea