“All diseases begin in the gut.” ~ Hippocrates
What a smarty pants he was! But thankfully we’re slowly catching up to the secrets of the gut. Gastrointestinal disorders are at the top of the list of health conditions I see in dogs and cats at my holistic veterinary practice. Pet health and long-term quality of life is greatly affected by these diseases. In this article I will explain the underlying mechanisms such as leaky gut and imbalance of microbiome (the bacteria that live in the digestive tract) that are key to improving your beloved dogs’ and cats’ overall health and longevity and preventing all sorts of painful disorders.
Unless you’ve lived a life devoid of modern communication devices, you have probably come across research showing the connection between gut health – or lack thereof – and disease. Just about any sickness plaguing pets and humans alike is now being looked at from a GI and microbial angle, because the gut is connected to everything that happens in the body.
Many diseases that may seem to be totally unrelated to the gut can actually be caused by gastrointestinal disturbances.
What Damages the Gastrointestinal Tract?
Do any of the above diseases sound familiar? If your answer is “yes,” you likely want to know why. Because no one wants their pets to be constantly feeling sick. Not to mention the cost (financial, emotional and physical)!
All diseases have two potential causes: deficiency or toxicity and very often both.
A poor diet that is lacking nutrients because it has been overly processed and become toxic is one of the main culprits. Just like with everything else in the body, the gut really hasn’t changed to adapt to processed foods and its ability to digest things, such as, for example, carbohydrates in dogs and cats in the last 100 years. Their GI tract is not made for that.
They, in fact, can’t make sufficient enzymes to break down the excess carbohydrates in many commercial diets. In other words, kibble, which is high in carbs and highly processed, is never a healthy choice no matter how “healthy” the manufacturers make it out to be. The further we stray from what our pets’ bodies are designed to eat, the more likely it is that they’re going to fail.
Unfortunately, we also live in a very polluted world that has become poisoned by harsh chemicals such as Glyphosate (found in Roundup) and other toxins like broad-spectrum antibiotics that damage the gut microbiome. Not to mention the nearly 500 billion pounds of harsh chemicals used every year just in the US alone!
Common Triggers of Intestinal Damage
- Dietary protein
- Low HCL (stomach acid)
- Low enzyme
- Blood sugar issues
- Hormone imbalances
- Food allergies
Photo credit: Dr. Josh Axe
Leaky Gut and Its Effects on the Entire System
Let me explain to you what happens when the gut is under attack.
The gut lining, or epithelium, is made of a single layer of cells. It’s the only thing that separates food moving through the digestive tract from the bloodstream. It is responsible for digesting the food and processing it so that nutrients can be absorbed into the bloodstream and used by the body.
In a normal, healthy gut, the individual cells are very closely tied together through tight junctions, so that nothing can pass between the cells. Little finger-like structures at the luminal side (facing the food side of intestine) of the cells contain enzymes and host the microbes that help with digestion. In a healthy gut, anything that is ingested is broken down, absorbed into the cells, and then transported safely into the bloodstream.
In an inflamed gut, these little tight junctions open up. This allows particles that have not been properly digested and are too big for the body to use, to pass between cells.
The body recognizes these particles as dangerous foreign bodies and calls on the immune system to clean up the mess.
The “Silent” Killer
Any time the immune system comes running, guess what’s happening? We have inflammation, because that’s what the immune system creates to clean up and heal. Normally, inflammation subsides once the threat is over.
With a leaky gut, this threat is never over; the gaps between the intestinal cells remain, and food particles continue to contaminate the bloodstream and activate the immune system. This inflammation can spread throughout the body.
In addition, because the particles are not broken down sufficiently, they cannot be used by the body. Nutritional deficiency develops.
Vicious Cycle – Antibiotic and Steroids
Another problem with this leaky gut is the development of food sensitivities. If a protein particle, chicken for example, enters the bloodstream not fully digested, the body develops a reaction to the chicken. So, any time the dog or cat will eat the chicken, the immune system says, “Wait a minute, that’s the stuff that was causing problems; let me attack it.”
This perpetuates inflammation in the GI tract, because now it has become sensitive to chicken. This is how nutritional sensitivities develop, resulting in symptoms like chronic ear infections, skin allergies, hot spots, hives, and often prompting life-long use of drugs such as antibiotics and steroids to suppress symptoms.
Any time inflammation is present in the gut, there is also inflammation created in the brain. Inflammatory chemicals enter the brain and cause imbalances that destroy neurons, which over time can result in behavioral issues like anxiety or aggression, seizures, dementia and other neurologic problems.
My own childhood dog, Windy, went from chronic allergies (= chronic inflammation) to cancer and finally dementia.
Pancreatitis and Liver Problems
Inflammation in the GI tract also affects the liver, for example, because it is in close proximity to the GI tract and inflammation tends to move back up into the liver via the bile duct. The same is true for the pancreas, which is also connected to the intestines through a small duct. It too can respond to inflammation in the GI tract and become destroyed over time. This can lead to problems like diabetes or chronic pancreatitis.
Does My Pet Have Leaky Gut?
Anytime a dog or cat is not super healthy (zero symptoms of anything at all), if it has been on antibiotics or other medications that impact the gut microbiome, like acid reducers, or it has been excessively dewormed, I just assume that there is leaky gut present.
From Disease to Glory – How to Heal the Gut
Healing the gastrointestinal tract is crucial to pet health.
The good news is that for the most part, healing the gut isn’t rocket science and rather easily and quickly accomplished when done correctly. In my practice I follow the “Four R” program outlined below.
The Four R Program (From the Institute for Functional Medicine)
1. Remove: Undertake an Elimination Diet
- Test for and remove allergy-producing foods and processed foods.
- Test for and treat chronic infections (yeast, unhealthy bacteria, parasites).
- Test your pet’s gut microbiome to determine gut health status.
2. Replace: Investigate Digestive Aids
- Use herbs, digestive enzymes, or other digestive supports that can help protect the lining from further damage, and coat the intestines while they heal.
- Provide healthy diet (eliminate processed high-carb foods).
3. Reinoculate: Rebalance Gut Flora
- Give probiotics to re-introduce proper flora to intestines.
- Treat with AnimalBiome’sgut restoration supplements (oral fecal transplant capsules).
- Get a fecal transplant or your dog or cat.
3. Repair: Rebuild Your Pet’s Intestinal Cells
- Supplementation with amino acids such as L-glutamine, pantothenic acid, zinc, omega-3 EPA/fish oil, vitamin E, amino acid glycine.
I’ve seen some incredible changes in many of the pets I’ve treated. The following are just a couple of many success stories.
Bear, a German Shepherd had a 2 year history of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Despite change in diet, eliminating offending foods and taking gut supporting probiotics, herbs, and omegas he was still showing symptoms. It wasn’t until he received a fecal transplant that his diarrhea finally resolved. The day after FMT his poop had already taken on form and continued to improve back to normal. His anxiety level also decreased tremendously and all he wanted to do was play.
Hudson was a middle-aged Labrador Retriever who suffered from skin allergies and recurrent ear infections his entire life. After eliminating foods he is sensitive to and healing his gut with the above mentioned protocol, he is as good as new.
Hudson the dog before and after treatment
Nico, a 12 year old Tonkinese cat was constantly licking himself raw due to itchiness. His ears were bright red and he wasn’t eating well. Due to inflammation in his GI tract, he also suffered from bouts of acute pancreatitis that required hospitalization. Again, he was a typical example of a patient with leaky gut, dysbiosis, and food sensitivities who recovered from all of his symptoms by healing his gut.
Nico the cat before and after treatment
About the author: Odette Suter, DVM, is a holistic veterinarian, author and lecturer in the Chicago area. Focusing on quality over quantity, and prevention rather than reactive care and band-aids, Dr. Suter uses functional medicine principles to resolve the underlying stressors that lead to disease. Learn more.
You may also enjoy reading, Healing Your Pet with a Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT).