More and more, we’re hearing about how we should be taking care of our ‘gut health’ and making sure that the foods we eat can help support a healthy microbiome.
But what exactly is a microbiome; why is gut health important; and why is it relevant to your dog’s health?
What are microbes?
Microbes (or microorganisms) are a group of living things that are always all around us, but that are so small, we can’t see them with the naked eye. Instead, we need a microscope to see them (hence, why they’re often referred to as microscopic).
There are three main classes of microbes – bacteria, fungi and viruses – and they are found in the air, in soil, in water, in our bodies and in our dogs’ bodies. While the different types of microbes share similarities, they each have their own unique characteristics that distinguish them from each other.
These are single-celled organisms that are a few micrometres in length (i.e. they’re tiny) and are most often spherical, rod or spiral-shaped. Some bacteria need oxygen to survive; others don’t; some prefer the cold; others the heat.
For humans and animals, including dogs, huge numbers of bacteria are found in the gut and on the skin.
Unlike bacteria, viruses aren’t cellular – that is they don’t have a cell of their own. Instead, they are made of molecules encased within a protein shell. They are usually icosahedral or helical in shape, but often form more complex structures and shapes. They’re also incredibly small – one-hundredth the size of bacteria!
In order to divide, grow and survive, viruses must ‘take-over’ healthy cells and ‘hijack’ their cellular machinery, using it to multiply and divide. For this reason, viruses are known as infectious or parasitic agents – they can’t survive on their own.
What distinguishes fungi (singular: fungus) from bacteria and viruses is that they are eukaryotic organisms – that is, their cells have a nucleus. Fungi are actually a kingdom in their own right, and some of the more common types include mould, mushrooms and yeast.
Fungi can live in a variety of different environments, including skin or in the body, where they occur naturally. Of all the classes of microbes, fungi hold some of the greater benefits for humans and animals including dogs. Yeast is used to make bread and beer (although don’t give this to your dog!); mushrooms and truffles are edible types of fungi; and the widely used drug penicillin was developed from a type of mould.
How they affect your dog’s health
Microbes are ubiquitous – they’re all around, including on your dog’s skin and fur. For the most part, this isn’t anything to worry about. A large portion of bacteria, viruses and fungi are harmless and won’t cause your dog any health problems – and some can even actively help it. But there’s always one. Or in this case, a few, that can and do cause issues for your dog.
Bacterial infections can be quite common in dogs and they’re often contagious. Typically, bacterial infections affect one specific part of the body – for example the ear, the gut, the kidneys, the urinary tract etc.
The good news is that these infections tend to be very treatable with a course of antibiotics.
Viral infections tend to be more difficult to treat than bacterial infections, and often medication (e.g. antibiotics) won’t work as a treatment. Instead, what tends to happen is that dogs are given vaccines to reduce their chances of developing a viral illness in the first place.
This process, known as vaccination, involves injecting a miniscule, specially prepared form of the virus into the body, which then causes the immune system to mount a response and form protection against the virus. Then, if the virus ever enters the body ‘for real’ the immune system will be ready to fight it off.
Some fungi are harmless and don’t cause problems, but others – called mycoses – can cause disease, which often start in the skin or the lungs. These tend not to be as common as bacterial or viral infections but can none-the-less be serious if left untreated.
Typically, dog’s pick these infections up from the environment and their surroundings, other animals and in some cases, an overgrowth of fungi that naturally occur on their own bodies.
In recent years, there’s been more and more research into microbes and the impact they can have on health. One important piece of information that’s come out of this research is an increased knowledge of the ‘microbiome’ – the name given to the collection of microbes that live in your dog’s gut.
The majority of microbes that make up the microbiome have little to no effect on our dog’s health. But there are some that actively work in a positive manner to help aid digestion and keep your dog healthy. Conversely, there are some which can be detrimental to your dog’s health and cause problems.
We also know through research that the microbes that make up the microbiome all interact with each other in a specific, balanced manner. And that if that balance is thrown out, it can cause health problems for your dog.
In fact, it’s now so well established that changes to the microbiome impact on health that there’s a term for it – dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis is linked to a number of illness, some more serious than others, including:
- Acute and chronic gastrointestinal disorder
Factors that can affect and cause changes to the microbiome include things like stress and long-term use of antibiotics, which alongside killing off disease-causing ‘bad’ microbes, can eliminate ‘good’ microbes too.
Another factor that has a large impact on your dog’s microbiome, in both a positive and a negative manner, is their diet. We know that changes to food intake and the types of foods consumed can result in an increase in the number of ‘good’ microbes as well as ‘bad’ ones.
Equally, changes to your dog’s diet may not necessarily introduce a new ‘good’ or ‘bad’ microbe. Instead, it might result in the addition or removal of a ‘neutral’ microbe, which can upset the delicate microbiome balance and result in digestive and other issues.
For example, there’s good evidence showing that the ratio of protein to carbohydrates can dramatically alter the gut microbiome of dogs if one food type is favoured over the other. Specifically, it’s been shown that a diet too high in protein results in a greater abundance of bacteria associated with obesity and diabetes.
It’s also been shown that inclusion of fiber derived from potatoes can have a positive impact on the microbiome, stimulating the production of ‘good’ microbes.
Can we control the microbiome?
Knowing that diet can have such a large impact on your dog’s gut microbiome and subsequently, their health, a natural question to ask would be ‘how do I make sure I only give my dog food that promotes a good microbiome’.
Sadly, we don’t fully know the answer to that – yet. What we do know is that disruption to your dog’s gut microbiome is an inevitable fact of life, and that the majority of times, these changes won’t result in anything negative happening health-wise.
But we still need more research to determine the full and causal link between health problems and changes to the microbiome in dogs.
So, in the meantime, while we await this research and the answers it will provide, here are some things you can do to try and help keep your dog’s microbiome in check:
- Avoid changing their diet and introducing new foods too often or without consideration
- Monitor how much protein you’re giving them, especially in relation to the amount of carbohydrates
- Consider using supplements if needed as they can help
- If your dog is on long-term antibiotics, discuss the use of a probiotic with your veterinarian
I hope you found this blog interesting. If you have any questions or would like help selecting an appropriate consultation for your dog please feel free to contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org