We are learning more and more about how gut health affects our overall health and wellness as humans, and the same is true for our pets. If your dog struggles with chronic problems like diarrhea, gas, inflammation and allergies (as many of my own canine clients do) the root cause may be an unhealthy gut microbiome. Dr. Heather Oxford, DVM, gives us the 101 on the microbiome, how it affects our pets, and what we can do to help them.
Q. I have heard a lot about the microbiome over the last few years as it relates to health and wellness, but what exactly is it?
A microbiome is a community of microorganisms that is contained within a defined ecologic niche. Microorganisms making up the microbiome include bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, algae, and even viruses. Some are pathogens (bad guys), pathobionts (these are good guys that have the potential under certain circumstances to become bad guys), and commensals (good guys). Every body surface has its own distinct microbiome. Fecal bacteria from the colon is the most commonly studied microbiome because of the ease of collection of a stool sample, and because the fecal microbiome (FM) contains more than 40 billion of the more than 100 trillion bacteria in an individual.
Q. Why is a healthy microbiome important in our dogs?
Healthy microbiomes are diverse populations of microorganisms that are found across any population of healthy individuals. A healthy microbiome directly impacts digestion and fermentation of food as an energy source for the body, bile acid metabolism, extraction of nutrients from the diet and vitamin synthesis, and resistance to over-colonization by pathogenic bacteria. Even more amazingly, a healthy microbiome can actually influence weight gain, the development of a healthy immune system, and plays a key role in appropriate inflammatory responses against pathogens such as Salmonella and E. Coli.
Q. How does it affect a dogs health and wellness?
Animals with unhealthy microbiomes are missing core microbes in their microbiome and develop dysbiosis. Animals with dysbiosis are more likely to develop diarrhea, vomiting, and flatulence than animals with healthy microbiomes. Also, animals with dysbiosis are more likely than healthy animals to develop chronic health issues including Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), colitis, pancreatitis, and endocrine diseases such as diabetes. If an animal’s dysbiosis is not corrected, it can even be associated with certain types of cancers. An unhealthy or dysbiotic microbiome can also contribute to systemic inflammation.
Q. What causes an unhealthy microbiome?
Life stage/aging, geography, diet, certain antacids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics, antifungals, underlying diseases, exposure to stress, and travel can negatively impact the microbiome. The microbiome can be disturbed for weeks to months from these factors and this can be hard to predict due to individualization of the microbiome.
Since only 20-40% of these fecal bacteria are able to be cultured by traditional tests, laboratories now use next generation RNA sequencing to analyze the bacteria and determine what makes up an individual’s microbiome. Testing an animal’s microbiome can tell us a lot about what is causing particular symptoms and can lead to directed treatment strategies.
Q. How can you reverse or treat an unhealthy microbiome?
Sometimes antibiotics are prescribed for symptoms of an unhealthy microbiome such as diarrhea. This can actually make things worse by killing many of the commensal or beneficial microorganisms. Antibiotics are falling out of favor in the veterinary community recently, however, due to increasing levels of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that affect animals and humans. Probiotics are another common treatment strategy that can produce positive clinical effects in an individual with dysbiosis, but can also negatively impact it. Human probiotics are not designed for the dog’s microbiome and can actually make things worse by competing with the naturally occurring gut microorganisms, allowing pathogenic bacteria to flourish. Probiotics can actually delay gut microbiome reconstitution.
Studies in humans have found that individuals with dysbiosis can benefit from fecal microbial transplants or microbiome restorative treatments moreso than from other treatments as it promotes the reconstitution and restoration of the natural microbiome. This involves taking healthy fecal material (based on RNA sequencing of the stool) and transplanting it into the unhealthy individual either by rectal infusion or by oral consumption of an encapsulation. In animals, healthy fecal donors are selected based on screening tools and testing, and stools are specially processed and encapsulated. FMTs can help many types of diarrhea to resolve much more quickly than probiotics or antibiotics. By subsequent microbiome testing, it has been shown that up to 50% of dogs can have their microbiome restored to healthy levels within 1 month of FMT, with 50% of dogs requiring more than 1 month of FMT supplementation to restore a healthy microbiome.
Q. How can you keep the microbiome healthy?
Feeding a healthy, good-quality diet is very important in maintaining a healthy microbiome as development or relapse of dysbiosis after FMT can occur if the wrong diet is being fed. Diets that are rich in protein will enhance certain bacteria, while diets high in carbohydrates can enhance other types of bacteria. The source and types of fiber is one of the most important aspects of the diet, as this can have major influences of bacterial growth as well. Finally, minimizing exposure to stress and certain medications, as well as preventive health screenings, can help maintain a healthy microbiome.
So how can you test your dog?
AnimalBiome, founded by scientists in 2016 is the leader in microbiome research, products and testing for your pet. We have used their products first hand with several clients with great success. You can learn more about AnimalBiome here.