Understanding digestive upsets.

Care Health Ingredients Nutrition

At some time or other all dogs experience digestive upsets, but good nutritional management is vital in overcoming the worst of these problems.

Our canine companions, like us, are subject to the usual array of upset stomachs. Whether it is from a food intolerance, a significant gut condition such as IBS, or simply picking up a tummy bug, the effects can range from indigestion to uncontrolled diarrhoea and vomiting. But, when it comes to using food as medicine, treating digestive disorders is founded on the feeding of a quality diet.

The term “quality”, when it comes to food, digestion and wellbeing, is quite complex and consists of three vital areas:

  1. The suitability of the ingredients from which the nutrients are derived.
  2. The range of nutrients contained in the ingredients.
  3. The availability of these nutrients to digestion.

The suitability of the ingredients

Not all animals can digest all ingredients. Consider grass hay for example; a wonderful source of nutrients for cows and sheep, but not so good a food source for the likes of us, or our dogs and cats for that matter. It boils down to what enzymes are secreted in the saliva and the gut, plus the animal’s ability to ferment food as a part of the digestive process. Herbivorous animals such as cows and sheep have a very high fermentation coefficient, meaning they are quite adept at unlocking nutrients from their vegetarian diet. Us humans have a lower fermentation coefficient, whilst our dogs and cats, with their much shorter total gut length, possess very little ability to ferment food. To demonstrate this point, it takes between 20 and 30 hours for food to transit the human gut, whereas our dogs transition their food in only 6 to 8 hours.

When it comes to ingredients, there is much discussion as to the value of carbohydrate, or more specifically carbohydrate from grains, in a dog’s diet. Those advocating grain free maintain there is no amylase (the enzyme required to convert carbohydrates to simple sugars) secreted in dog saliva, and therefore the dog cannot digest cereal carbohydrate. Furthermore, the grain free lobby also suggest the modern dog has evolved from the wolf, which, it is claimed, is a true or obligate carnivore. What has actually happened with our domesticated canine friends over the past 15,000 years or so of domestication, is that the dog has adapted more to our way of eating. Whilst true carnivores are incapable of producing vitamin A, arachidonic acid and taurine (such as cats), our domestic dogs can actually convert beta-carotene from plants to active vitamin A, can produce arachidonic acid from linoleic acid (found in vegetable oils), and can usually meet their lower need for taurine by metabolising the amino acid methionine. Furthermore, the pancreas actually produces amylase, which allows complex starches to be broken down to simple sugars suitable for digestion, provided of course the carbohydrate level is balanced to the total diet in order to not over-tax the pancreas. So the evolutionary process has actually developed the dog to be a closer and more suitable companion, and more capable of integrating with our modern way of life.

But one thing is certain; the inclusion of marginal or poorly digested ingredients, in other words ingredients that are not sympathetic to the animal, will seriously impact the ability of the dog to fulfil its nutritional requirements in a meaningful manner.

The overwhelming reason for this is the influence ingredients have on the gut microbiome. The microbiome consists of over a thousand species of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit and colonise the gut… the species diversity of one dog’s microbiome is greater than the diversity found in a rainforest. The role played by these gut organisms is pivotal in maintaining a healthy gut environment. They play an indispensable role in the digestive process, in promoting immunity and good health, influencing mood, and the provision of additional nutrients that are essential for the host animal. In fact, the microbiome is essential for life, and has developed over the ages in step with the evolution of the animal, so any disruption to the wellbeing of the microbiome has a direct and immediate negative affect on the animal.

Conversely, the inclusion of ingredients in the food that are sympathetic to the needs of the microbiome ensures the maximum benefit is extracted from the food at the same time as maximising the dog’s immunity, wellbeing and happiness.

The range of nutrients contained in the ingredients

Not all ingredients are created equal, and no one ingredient contains the perfect nutrient profile. And this is where the job of eliminating digestive upsets whilst maximising wellbeing starts to get a little confusing. Once we have identified the ingredients that are supportive of the microbiome, we have to choose from that group those that are going to contribute the required essential nutrients. This must be undertaken before combining those ingredients in the correct proportions to ensure the essential nutrient ratios contained in the ingredient mix are balanced to the needs of the dog.

Take protein for example. For the body to use protein, or for “protein synthesis” to occur (to use the technical term!), all ten essential amino acids must be present in the food in the correct ratios to one another. This doesn’t mean that you have to have them all present at the same level. For synthesis to occur they must be at such levels as to allow the very specific but different amount of each individual amino acid to be present in the food. There can be excesses of any or all of the amino acids, but there cannot be a shortage of even just one essential amino acid.

To summarise this aspect of nutrition, a shortage of just one essential amino causes protein synthesisation to cease, and to restart the process means the dog or cat has to eat more food (protein) just to get the short supplied or missing amino acid. Conversely, any amino acids that are excess to the process will be converted to fat, and during that conversion process nitrogen will be released which has to be purged from the body via the kidneys and urine. It is the unbalanced protein excess in many of the high profile, high protein foods being marketed today that are in fact causing or potentially causing long term kidney damage to our pets.

For more information regarding this aspect of nutrition see the articles “Nutrient Ramping” and “What is crude protein?”, both of which are published in the blog section of this website.

“There can be excesses of any or all of the amino acids, but there cannot be a shortage of even just one essential amino acid…”

The availability of these nutrients to digestion

Just because the nutrients are contained in the food doesn’t mean the dog or cat can actually extract the nutrients. As mentioned earlier, the microbiome plays a pivotal role in the digestive, nutrient extraction and absorption processes, and it is a bit of a no-brainer to accept that a reduction in microbiome organism diversity, or a microbiome that is imbalanced resulting in continued low level inflammation, can’t really perform in the best interests of the host dog.

But there are other reasons why nutrients aren’t available to digestion, with two main factors being the culprits.

Firstly, the nutrients may simply be tied up in a form that is unable to be broken down by both the digestive enzymes and the action of the microbiota. A classic example of this, and an ingredient that is sometimes found in dog food, is feather meal (sometimes listed as “hydrolysed poultry by-product aggregate”), a hydrolysed protein from chicken feathers that is rich in the essential sulphur amino acid methionine. Whilst the amino acid level is high, it is mostly contained in a form that cannot be digested by the dog meaning at least 60% of the amino acid is passed out the back end of the animal in much the same form as it was consumed in the first place.

Secondly, the manner of processing can also lock up the nutrients. In the case of the feather meal, damage to the protein through poor processing can alter the amino acid structure in such a manner that it is no longer able to be digested. Amino acids in their raw form exist as complex spirals of molecules with the spirals being connected by tertiary amino acid bonds. The actual amino acids in the spiral are connected to one another with secondary amino acid bonds, and the breaking of both the tertiary and secondary bonds is the process known as denaturing the protein. A visual example of a protein being denatured is observed when frying an egg, whereby the egg white turns from translucent to white as it is cooked or denatured. Once the tertiary and secondary bonds are broken through the cooking or heating, the process cannot be reversed, but the digestibility of the protein is now enhanced. However, if the protein (as in our egg white example) is exposed to continued heat, damage to the amino acid molecule itself occurs when the primary bonds that hold the structure together are broken. This then effectively renders the amino acids (protein) indigestible.

From the point of protein digestibility, cooking is a bit of a double-edged sword. Cooking the food improves many protein sources by breaking down those secondary and tertiary bonds, which is in fact commencing the digestive process and thus making life easier for the dog and the co-existing microbiota. However, prolonged exposure to heat will damage the protein by breaking the primary bonds, and thus reduce the total amount of available protein. Almost all dry dog foods, and particularly the shaped kibble varieties, are processed using the extrusion cooking method. This entails mixing and

grinding all the raw ingredients before passing them through an extruder, which resembles an oversized meat mincer. During the process, the blend of ingredients is heated under pressure, the cell structure of the ingredients is ruptured liberating aroma and flavour components, whilst forming new nutritional complexes. But the overwhelming advantage of this method is the speed by which it occurs; extrusion cooking is the fastest known method of fully cooking food, and by virtue of the speed minimises damage to sensitive nutrients. In many ways, extrusion cooking can be described as a pre-digestion process. The negative to the process though, is that there is still a level of damage to heat sensitive nutrients, and it is up to the nutritionist to ensure sufficient overages of these nutrients exist in the raw mix to compensate for the cooking losses. And of course, it also goes without saying that using a kinder method of cooking that aids digestion won’t compensate for using ingredients that are poor quality or sub-standard.


“Just because the nutrients are contained in the food doesn’t mean the dog or cat can actually extract the nutrients…”

When using food as medicine to aid digestive upsets, it must be remembered that improvements to the microbiome and the stabilisation of blood nutrient levels will not occur overnight. Also, the nature of the problem will determine to a large extent your preferred way of addressing the issue.

Food sensitivities – are quite often wrongly referred to as food allergies, with the difference being that an allergy is most often a genetic based disorder that is quite dramatic in its effect on the animal (particularly in relation to skin), but is fortunately not very common. On the other hand, food sensitivities are more often associated with bloating, soft or loose stools and sometimes vomiting. However, whether the issue is an allergic reaction or a sensitivity issue, determining the precise cause of the problem can be difficult. One of the first actions is to seek information regarding the breed and the parent’s history to see if there is any evidence of allergies in that particular family. Also, the symptoms of a true food allergy can be anything from gut upsets including chronic diarrhoea and chronic gas to itchy feet or ear inflammation.

Dogs that experience food intolerance issues will only exhibit digestive upset symptoms such as soft stools or diarrhoea, vomiting and gas, much the same as when you have a rich or spicy meal to which you are unaccustomed.

But whether the problem is an allergy or a sensitivity, the gut response remains similar. The allergen in the food triggers an immune response in the gut resulting in inflammation of either the gut lining, the skin, or both. An area of great interest in canine nutrition research is the role the microbiome plays in this immune response and it is believed a reduction in microbiome diversity is to blame for many of these problems. Stress, antibiotics, pollution and chemicals from drugs and the environment are all seen as culprits, with the only long-term solution being to move to a more natural diet containing the diversity of sympathetic ingredients needed to foster the wellbeing and balance of the microbiome.

IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) – is an increasingly common chronic gut inflammation problem afflicting many of our canine companions. Drugs such as prednisolone are usually prescribed in an attempt to control the disease, but there is growing evidence to suggest cultivating microbiome diversity with food can actually reverse the disorder. Here at LifeWise we have been fortunate to receive feedback from relieved pet owners whose dogs have completely recovered and are drug free after continual feeding of LifeWise formulations. These recoveries add weight to the belief the restoration of microbiome diversity is not only possible, but an effective method of treatment. Naturally, if you have a dog who suffers from IBS, it is vitally important to work with your veterinarian as well as your nutritionist, and with careful management there is no reason why your beloved pet can’t return to a happy and healthy life.

“When using food as medicine to aid digestive upsets, it must be remembered that improvements to the microbiome and the stabilisation of blood nutrient levels will not occur overnight…”

Leaky gut (Dysbiosis) – Dysbiosis is the technical term for the reduction of diversity of species in the microbiome. Now, I know we talk a lot about the number of species of microbiota in the gut both in this article and in others on this web site, but diversity is what true gut health is all about. In other words, please forgive us if this is all sounding a little repetitive!

In respect of Leaky Gut, the lack of microbiota diversity results in long term inflammation and degradation of the intestine wall which ultimately allows undigested food particles and pathogens to pass into the blood stream. The liver then has to attempt to deal with these particles and the immune system is mobilised to help. But unfortunately, as the leakage continues the body’s defences becomes overwhelmed and the immune system starts to see food as an alien invader, thus triggering an auto-immune response that really impacts the health and wellbeing of the poor animal.

Many believe the use of antibiotics is the primary cause of dysbiosis, along with poor diets and the excessive chemical loading of the dog. But as we have already discussed, a poor diet is not necessarily easily recognised, so the loss of species in the gut can gradually increase over a long period until such time as a critical point is reached. This is when the bad bacteria gain the upper hand, resulting in damage to the gut lining with the symptoms of leaky gut being the first clue that something major is amiss.

So how do we cure this problem, or better still, prevent it from happening in the first place?

Simple: only feed your dog a food that is known to contain ingredients that will foster microbiome diversity, whilst providing essential nutrients at the correct levels to promote health and wellbeing.

One useful adjunct to the treatment of any of the digestive issues that beset our dogs is to incorporate a probiotic supplement into your feeding plan. We have seen many dogs on LifeWise formulations that have responded quite quickly to a combined program of food and probiotics, but in really bad cases it can take up to 2 years to fully restore good health and vitality. Should you need assistance in this area, please drop us a line at [email protected] or fill out the response form at the bottom of the page.

Soft stools – no discussion of digestive issues would be complete, without some mention of soft stools; we probably receive more questions in respect of this issue than any other. Unfortunately, soft stools are more often than not caused by overfeeding. It seems many dog parents interpret the feeding guide on the back of the bag as being the definitive amount of food to be fed. Actually, the guide is just that – a guide, and allowances must be made for the level of activity, the age, the demeanour of the dog and the weather.

Obviously, young active dogs require more food than older more sedentary adults, whilst dogs that are stress heads or nervous will also require a lot more food than its passive and peaceful counterpart. Weather, or the environment, is another major influence on food requirement, with hot summer temperatures depressing appetite by up to 15%, whilst cold winter weather will increase food requirements by up to 15% of average. This means there can be as much as a 30% difference between what the dog needs in summer compared to its needs for winter. So the rules of thumb are:

  1. If the dog is gaining weight he is eating too much and if he is losing weight he is not eating enough.
  2. A given quantity of food will support a given body weight, so once you have determined whether you need to feed more or less (as in point 1), you can tailor the quantity of food for your best friend to achieve the body of an Adonis.

We trust you have found some, or all of the above of some benefit. Obviously, digestion and digestive upsets is a huge topic and we have only skimmed the surface of many areas for consideration. So if you would like to add to the discussion, want more information on any aspect of the above, or would like to ask a question that hasn’t been addressed by this article, please contact us using the form below.

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