We’re ecosystems of interacting, living organisms. We’re covered in a cloud of microorganisms that live in and on us. Our dogs are the same.
In fact, we have two to three times as many cells of microorganisms in our bodies than our own cells. These microorganisms are bacteria, fungi
We call this community of microorganisms the microbiome.
And we need to make sure this community is healthy. If we don’t, our dogs won’t be healthy.
What’s The Microbiome?
The microbiome plays an important part in our physiology, as well as that of our dogs. The gut microbiome plays essential roles in:
- The central nervous system
- Behavior (including anxiety and depression)
- Skin health
- Other metabolic disorders
All mammals are exposed to their first microbes during birth and through breastfeeding. The microbes that arrive first can affect which new species of microbes can move in later on. These early life events are foundational to health and influence a dog’s health for the rest of her life.
We each have a unique gut microbiome signature. It’s kind of like a fingerprint.
How Gut Health Impacts Overall Health
Several health conditions in dogs come from imbalances in the microbiome.
I mentioned that mammals are first exposed to
But even if the microbiome starts out great, there are other things that can harm that community.
What’s harming the gut microbiome?
- Broad spectrum antibiotics
- Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
- Chemicals like food additives
These things alter the gut microbiome and may cause chronic digestive conditions. The widespread use of antibiotics and antimicrobials has been linked to:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
- Esophageal reflux
- Type 1 diabetes
- Food allergies
Rebalancing The Microbiome
To get things back on track, those missing microbes need to be reintroduced.
Maybe you’re thinking probiotics are the answer? And you’d be half right. High quality probiotics can help start the process of rebalancing. They’ll give your dog’s gut a major health boost!
But only some of the essential beneficial microorganisms have been developed into probiotics. They don’t contain bacterial or fungal strains adapted to living in a dog. Instead they come from soil or human samples. That means some are missing. They’re useful for reducing symptoms of some issues but they won’t resolve them.
You can think of today’s probiotics kind of like taking a shark from the ocean and putting it into a freshwater lake. It may be able to survive for a period of time and it may eat some fish, but it won’t be able to live there. This means that most probiotics have to be given continuously to see a benefit.
Today, those missing microbes can only be found in fecal material. And only from healthy individuals. That’s the role of fecal transplants.
The best way to rebalance the gut is with a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT). It’s the same for both humans and animals.
As odd as it might seem, it’s the practice of using poop as medicine.
In people, FMTs have been performed for at least 1,000 years in Chinese medicine. It has been used to treat digestive disorders like indigestion and colitis. In Western Medicine, the main use is for Clostridium
But that’s not all. There are many studies showing how well FMT works with:
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
In the veterinary profession, some also call it Microbiota Restorative Therapy. An FMT is done to re-establish a healthy community of gut microbes to the digestive tract. FMT has been around since at least the 18th century for cattle, horses, sheep
It can help with:
- Digestive upset
- Joint disease
- Autoimmune diseases
A growing number of veterinarians are now offering FMT. One thing limiting it though is access to screened material from healthy donors.
A healthy donor needs to be just right. Of course, the donated stool needs to be carefully tested for parasites, pathogens, as well as the right balance of gut bacteria. They also need to have had minimal exposure to chemicals and medications. And they should have no behavioral issues and not weigh too much or too little.
Another challenge with the general practice of FMT today is that typically FMTs are given in an invasive manner. This usually means with an enema in the office and it may involve sedation. It can be a costly procedure. For obvious reasons, not all veterinarians want to mess with this.
Luckily, this is another challenge we’re overcoming. There are now ways to give FMTs orally at home. This is a gentle alternative to restoring diversity and function to the gut. And there’s no sedation. No ‘mess’ no fuss.
It turns out that the microbial cloud we all carry around with us needs to be diverse and healthy. This is the only way we can function optimally. For a century (at least) we’ve focused on killing infectious bacteria to saving lives. Now scientists have discovered that we’ve been doing some harm in the process.
Thankfully, there’s tremendous interest in funny things like fecal transplants. Those little tiny things living in our microbiomes are finally getting some recognition. We’re learning that there’s more to combating illness than just throwing some meds at it. Pay attention to your dog’s gut – it could save her life and it will likely make her feel happier and healthier.