There’s a lot of scaremongering in the press and even in the medical community about bacteria and how sick they can make us and our pets. But these microorganisms are an important part of overall health – as well as the environment!
Naturally formed colonies of microbes combine with other colonies to form a microbiome. These microbiomes can be found on and in the bodies of plants and animals, in the air, soil, and in even in the waters around us. The health of the entire planet is dependent on the health of these microbiomes.
In animals, microbiomes are found just about everywhere: on all exposed external and internal surfaces of the body – the ears, nose, the eyes, skin, mouth, throat, and airways – as well as in the intestines, cecum and colon.
And there are a lot of these microorganisms – about 100 trillion of them, which is ten times the total number of cells in the body! Most of them are in the form of bacteria, along with some viruses, fungi, parasites, yeasts, and protozoa. The microbiome’s health is impacted by factors such as the animal’s genetics, the environment and diet.
Essential for good health
The microbiome has many important roles to play
Microbiomes help dogs and other animals digest food and absorb nutrients.
They trap heavy metals and carcinogens and pass them out through the stool.
They manufacture essential vitamins and anti-inflammatory proteins.
They work with the immune system in warding off harmful intruders.
Bacteria that live on the skin form a natural moisturizer, preventing the skin from cracking and fending off harmful bacteria, fungi and viruses.
They stimulate cell renewal and nourish the cells of the skin and the intestinal tract to help these organs do their work.
Almost 90 percent of an animal’s immune system is located in the wall of the intestines. Without the digestive tract microbiome, the immune system cannot function in a balanced, healthy fashion. Allergies or intolerances often start in the gut and are the result of an imbalance or leak in the microbiome.
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It begins at birth
When a newborn puppy is born, he’s exposed to these microorganisms as he passes through the vagina into the outside world. When the mother licks the newborn, she transfers more bacteria from her saliva, and still more when the newborn starts to nurse. As long as the mother’s vaginal, oral and skin microflora are healthy, this normal process creates a healthy microbiome for the young pup.
Potential for disruption
On the other hand, if the newborn is delivered by cesarean, then rubbed with a sterile towel, whisked away and tube fed with colostrum, that can disrupt the normal balance of microbes and cause potential problems later on in life.
After the puppy is weaned and grows up, other things can disrupt the normal microbiome, including:
Eating large amounts of simple carbohydrates, animal fat, or a sterile highly processed diet
Oversanitization of his environment
Prolonged periods of stress
Radiation, antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals
Limited exposure to the outside and other environmental influences
Can probiotic supplements help?
Probiotics are a group of live bacteria that can offer many health benefits.
A good quality probiotic contains bacteria that act together to restore disrupted balance in the gut. These “good bacteria” must survive the acid in the stomach and the bile in the small intestines in order to be successful. According to Dr Meg Smart, Professor of Small Animal Nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan, maintaining a healthy functional micobiome is dependent on a supportive diet of whole and fermented foods. Many companies develop what they consider the “ideal” canine probiotic, but no manufactured probiotic can ever replace the vast array of microorganisms found in a varied diet of whole foods, regionally grown in soil with a healthy microbiome and environment.
Probiotics in pet foods
Some pet food manufacturers spray probiotics on the food, hoping they will survive and act in a similar manner. However, when Dr Smart studied 11 commercial kibbles treated in this manner, the only organism that survived was Pseudomonas.
Many people are afraid of potentially harmful bacteria in raw pet foods, and some manufacturers use irradiation and high pressure pasteurization to get rid of them. However, in the process they also destroy beneficial bacteria. There are still several raw pet foods that are not treated, so it’s important to do your research so you know what you’re buying. Raw green tripe from grass fed cattle is an excellent good source of healthy bacteria – again, as long as it hasn’t been irradiated or pasteurized.
When to use probiotics
After 20 years of clinical experience using probiotics, Dr Richard Calland found that dogs and cats with gastrointestinal issues all benefit from a good probiotic supplement and that’s what he uses as his first and usually his only “medication” to treat an intestinal imbalance.
Probiotics gently help dogs get over digestive disturbances by bringing the bacteria in the digestive tract into balance – without the use of harsh medicines. Using pharmaceuticals to treat most digestive disturbances is usually ineffective and often slows the recovery of a balanced, normally functioning digestive system.
Any dog under medical or surgical treatment would benefit from a good probiotic to counteract the detrimental effect of pharmaceutical drugs. Probiotic supplementation can even improve the overall wellbeing of healthy animals and support a healthy immune system.
Probiotics can also improve the health of dogs on a processed kibble diet or irradiated and pasteurized raw foods. They can also benefit dogs who exhibit stress or who have sensitive digestive systems or other signs of an unbalanced microbiome.
More research is needed
According to Dr Smart, it’s difficult to determine the ideal probiotic for dogs as we are just beginning to understand their complex and life sustaining role. She says “further research must be done to utilize all microbiomes to the benefit of all plant and animal species and our environment.”