Gas, bloating, diarrhea, vomiting and gastrointestinal upset in dogs is a problem. Our canine companions are no different than you or I. We all have a gastrointestinal tract that sometimes can get out of whack, not functioning at desired levels, resulting in problems at times. It can be difficult to contend with, especially in the middle of the night or if your pet is left unattended while you work, coming home to a mess. Why does this happen and is there something we can do or not do to improve the situation?
Gastrointestinal upset. It comes in the form of gas, diarrhea, vomiting and bloating in dogs. The problems seem to happen to some dogs more than others, even more often in certain breeds. It is par for the course, especially with specific breeds, but there are some things we can do to minimize how often it happens. In order to see certain solutions, we must first understand how things are supposed to function and how things go awry. It can happen to any breed of dog, but some breeds are more repeat offenders. This list is fairly long but can include English and American Bulldogs, Labradors, Bullmastiffs and other large breeds. Those are often the gas producers in the bunch. The smaller breeds tend to be more prone to conditions like constipation, which then actually can impact anal gland health.
The Root of GI Upset in Dogs
The digestive tract is pretty similar across species borders, with the exception of a few things. All in all, the digestive tract is meant to do exactly that…digest our food. Through this process of proper digestion, the food consumed is broken down, nutrients are extracted and made available to the body for normal function. This process of digestion is complicated and beyond the scope of this article, however, each section of the GI tract has its distinct function from stomach to colon and even rectum.
One key point when considering the digestive tract as a whole, is that bacteria, fungi and protozoa all live there, playing a vital role in food breakdown and nutrient extraction. There are literally trillions of different species of bacteria, fungi and protozoa that are normal occupants of the digestive tract, way too many to count. Certain species are normally present for ideal digestion and when this population gets out of balance, things can go astray, leading to the clinical issues we see at home. This situation is referred to as ‘dysbiosis’ or in some cases also referred to as ‘small intestinal bacterial overgrowth’ or ‘overgrowth’ in general.
This dysbiosis is actually very common in veterinary practice, actually contributing to more health problems than we think, beyond just the GI signs of gas, diarrhea and even stomach upset. It is very common to see, especially around holidays or when the pet gets into garbage, seeking out our left overs. We often referred to that specifically, as ‘garbagitis’.
The bacterial population in the digestive tract is very sensitive and can alter itself on the flip of a coin, going from a healthy to a toxic situation quickly. As the bacterial population shifts, we can then see things like excess gas production due to fermentation of normally non-prominant bacterial species. In some cases, if the shift happens acutely and severely, with more ‘bad’ bacteria becoming dominant, we will see diarrhea of different severities. This shift can also result in altered water metabolism, leading to increased constipation in some pets. On a more severe level, especially over time, the altered negative shift can lead to localized inflammation and immune response within the GI tract, that can then lead to damage of the intestinal wall, impacting digestion on a basic level. This is referred to as ‘leaky gut syndrome’ and refers to a more permeable or ‘leaky’ intestinal wall border, where bacteria, food dyes and chemicals, and even food particles can now cross over and into the blood stream. As this happens, it causes an immune response and inflammation at various levels, contributing to other health problems from allergies, skin and ear issues, cardiovascular disease, eye complaints, dental problems and even joint conditions. As digestion is impaired, we begin to see more clinical evidence in the patient such as more mucous production, wax production in the ears and eyes, tartar on the teeth and also skin conditions such as allergies.
Many health conditions are linked back directly to improper digestion, which include allergies, ear complaints and even some cancers.
How do we correct the problem?
I used to think years ago that it must be horrible to be a dog, eating the same thing day after day with minimal variety. In reality, it is likely the best situation for the digestive tract. By consuming the same foods each day, we somewhat train that bacterial population, getting it where we need it to be for ideal digestion….IF the chosen food is correct. It is when we stray from this habit that we often get into trouble. Most pets presented for GI upset have a history of just that, straying from the normal diet. In most situations, the owner fed some table scraps or other food that the pet was not used to getting on a daily basis. As mentioned above, this bacterial population can shift on a dime and will do so in a matter of hours in some cases, contributing to the acute episodes of diarrhea, gas and even vomiting. Yes, even just a few Lay’s Potato Chips can do that….trust me on that. Even worse when we give Fido a bowl of our holiday Chili. Not a good idea.
I know their diet may seem boring to you and I, but it is the best option and helps us to maintain GI health on a certain level. When the GI tract is happy, most often, the entire body is happy. So, the first way to avoid is to find the correct diet and stick with it with little variance.
Now, the question comes as to what is the ‘correct diet’? That’s a good question and if you ask 10 veterinarians, you will likely get 10 different responses. By simple definition, the ‘correct’ diet is one that provides for proper health for the animal, with no GI upset, a healthy coat and skin, good eyesight, organ function and mobility. A diet that provides proper nutrients without harm to the body. So, what diet does that? Again, good question and the answer to that can vary from one pet to the next.
I’ve never really favored commercial diets, as they are highly processed, often using synthetic, isolated nutrients and protein sources that really don’t exist in nature. Many of these diets have additives and preservatives, not to mention dyes and even flavoring, all of which can be harmful to the body in the long term. These are all chemicals and ‘foods’ that the body is not used to and not really designed to consume. Processed or commercial foods were created for convenience, nothing more and nothing less. They are presumably balanced, but not by nature, but by man and our perceptions as to what should be. Personally, I think that many of these diets are creating more harm than good for our pets and often contributing to many health ailments. I also think that things get worse when we start to use processed “prescription’ diets, which are all of the above, but now are targeting specific areas of health or concern, while often then neglecting the other 99% of the body and what it needs. Just my opinion again.
One interesting thing to notice is that if we are presented a pet with acute ‘garbagitis’, that is normally fed a commercial, diet, part of our therapy for that pet is to home cook, usually with boiled chicken and brown rice. Why? Because these two foods are not processed, full of nutrient value and generally easily digested. Throught their use, we can actually ‘calm’ things down and shift that bacterial load back towards normal. Most pets respond within a matter of days, then are placed back on their normal diet. So, what we did here is use a home cooked diet to remedy the problem. We didn’t use a commercial food, but used real foods. Hmmm. Get’s one thinking. Why then do we move them back to processed foods?
In some pets, we don’t. In reality, many actually do quite well on a home cooked diet and I was a big advocate for them in our patients, starting off as puppies. There are many recipes online or simply, we just relied on a few clean, low fat meat sources mixed with brown rice, mixed vegetables and a calcium source in most. They did quite well. Why don’t most owners do this? Plain and simple, it is time consuming. However, it is not hard to make up a week’s batch on the weekend, divide out into ziplock bags, freeze then unthaw as needed for each day. Most of our owners did exactly that, producing large volumes on the weekend and freezing. In reality, we should all be eating like that, so if we are eating that way each night, we just simply make an extra plate for our pet. Generally, no harm, no foul…unless we are a vegetarian or watching our own health and eliminating animal protein. Dogs are carnivores specifically, thus a meat source is generally required for optimal protein intake.
We’ve resolved or greatly aided many health conditions, including those confined to the GI tract, by moving to a home cooked meal and eliminating the commercial foods. So, what about ‘RAW’ diets? Personally, as a veterinarian, I’ve never used them or had a need. Raw diets are okay, for SOME pets, but not all. There are upsides and downsides. One big downside is bacterial contamination of the foods, especially meats, which can pose a risk to both owner and pet. Second, raw diets are cold in nature and energy. They can be more difficult to digest for this reason, thus contributing to GI upset in some pets. One big reason for using a raw diet is acute inflammatory and heat producing health problems, such as skin or ear conditions, which are evident clinically with redness, heat and often discharge production. The cooling nature of the raw diet can be a benefit in some situations, but not all. In our patients, I found that most of these pets respond very adequately to just a home cooked diet, as mentioned above. We don’t need to go to the extreme of a raw diet, because a home cooked diet is a very healthy move from what they were being fed.
Diet is one of the main factors with health and helping to manage any health condition. Whether if we are dealing with arthritis, allergies, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, primary GI problems or even cancer, diet should be the first thing addressed. The reason is that the diet is often a contributor to the present health ailment and if we don’t alter it or at least take a really close look at it, we could be just continuing to fuel the fire despite our chosen course of therapy.
A quick word about some ‘medicinal therapies’ that may be chosen for certain patients. Many of these medications, including corticosteroids and especially antibiotics, may be doing more harm than good. They can help us to clear away bad bacteria that may be causing infections, or even helping us to resolve high levels of inflammation, but they do have their bad sides. Antibiotics will impact that bacterial balance within the GI tract, often to the negative, resulting in more imbalance and more digestive issues. Corticosteroids and other medications can also impact balance, either directly or indirectly. We have to strongly reconsider any medication use for the long term for these reasons. They may be fighting what we are trying to achieve.
A high majority of cases will respond to dietary changes, often in a week or two. It can be quite incredible. However, some need some added support to help us get closer to our health goals for that specific patient. This is where herbs can be quite helpful.
Herbs are very powerful foods. Foods with medicinal value. As we discussed above, in many cases of digestion complaints, we have varying levels of inflammation. Sometimes that inflammation is just localized and minor, thus resolving with the proper dietary alterations. In other cases, more serious or chronic health ailments, that inflammatory process has become a systemic issue, involving the entire body and even immune response. Diet will greatly assist us, but likely we will need more support.
Some of my favorite herbs for these cases are Curcumin (Turmeric), Boswellia, Spirulina, Alfalfa, Anise, Parsley, Dandelion, Marshmallow and Aloe. Many mushrooms are also helpful, assisting us in many aspects. Most of these herbs can help us to balance the inflammatory and immune response, with some actually targeting the GI tract, which then can impact the entire body through signaling. However, many of the herbs also have a nutritional component that improves the situation, which includes not only readily available nutrients but also fatty acids, proteins, carbohydrates and fiber. All of these can assist in re-establishing and maintaining that bacterial population, keeping it balanced and working properly. One of my favorite formulas for assisting these pets is the Cur-OST SA Total Support.
Most of these herbs can be used on a short term and long term basis. Most pets tend to benefit more from long term or daily use, which helps us to continue to keep things as balanced as possible. We have to remember that most of these cases are chronic in nature, and with this, it will take time to repopulate the GI tract and gain ground in terms of condition improvement. Once we achieve balance and things are improved, it is almost vital to continue what we are doing, even at a reduced level, to help further provide support.
In the end, gastrointestinal disturbances are really common in dogs, of all breeds and sizes. They are not that much different from us and it really boils down to the adage, “you are what you eat”, or in this case, our pets are what they eat. The good news is that with a few tweeks to the diet and proper inclusion of herbs to keep things happy, most of these situations can be more easily managed for overall health.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M., CVCH, CHN