Dogs and cats are susceptible to many digestive issues. “Upset stomach” (which usually means vomiting) and diarrhea are among the top 10 reasons pets are taken to a veterinarian. Cats are prone to two additional tummy disorders: hairballs and constipation. And then there’s a problem that isn’t a disease, but causes a lot of discomfort: gas! Many dogs, and a fair number of cats, experience flatulence.
Logically, diet is the prime suspect in any sort of digestive disorder, and dry kibble is the biggest culprit. It’s less digestible than canned, homemade, or raw diets; and its carbohydrate content increases fermentation by gas-forming bacteria in the colon. Additionally, many pets eat kibble very quickly, gulping down significant quantities of air in the process, thereby contributing even more to the formation of gas.
There are some easy ways to improve your pet’s digestion, which will reduce or eliminate many gut issues.
Examine Your Pet’s Diet
A diet change may be in order. Different foods can cause gas in any individual animal, so it may take a little trial and error to find those that your pet tolerates best. It may also be beneficial to feed your pet several smaller meals, rather than one or two big ones.
Many animals respond well to a homemade diet. It has a distinct advantage in that you control the quality and quantity of every ingredient. Raw meat-based diets are closest to dogs’ and cats’ natural diet of whole prey. If you choose to make your pet’s food, be sure to follow a balanced recipe, and do not skip recommended supplements. Or, simplify the process by using a frozen complete diet product, or a balanced freeze-dried or dehydrated mix.
The “wild” canine or feline diet contains little, if any, fiber. Adult cats and dogs do not have any physiologic need for carbohydrates, including fiber. Reducing (but not eliminating) soluble dietary fiber, and choosing foods with low or zero grain content, may help reduce flatulence and improve digestion.
Fiber moderates and normalizes the passage of food through the intestines, so it can be used to both speed it up (to reduce vomiting) and slow it down (to alleviate diarrhea). Insoluble fiber may help with hairballs. However, the cellulose used in many pet foods is made mostly from pine trees and can be irritating to the membranes lining the digestive tract. Too much fiber can cause constipation. Bran, such as oat bran, may be a good choice, but stay away from rice bran for cats due to toxicity concerns.
Supplementing with digestive enzymes is a good way to ensure proper digestion. Additionally, probiotics are important; the colon’s bacteria are needed to finish digesting proteins, produce some B vitamins and vitamin K, and provide other important nutrients for the body. It’s important to balance and nourish that population of good bacteria, and the best way to do that is with probiotics.
A healthy balance of probiotics, the “friendly bacteria” that live in the gut, are key to preventing digestive problems such as vomiting, diarrhea, hairballs, and constipation. A healthy bacterial population in the gut also prevents infection by nasty invaders like Salmonella. Probiotics also support the immune system and are particularly helpful for allergies, including atopy (inhalant allergies), food allergies, and inflammatory bowel disease. Commercial kibble claiming to contain probiotics do not contain sufficient quantities of live organisms, so a separate supplement is necessary. Probiotics must be given daily (preferably with every meal) in order to maintain the beneficial effects.
Of course, for frequent or chronic digestive issues, your best bet is to have your pet checked out by a veterinarian to rule out more serious diseases.
Jean Hofve, DVM, is a holistically oriented veterinarian and co-author of Paleo Dog: Give Your Best Friend a Long Life, Healthy Weight, and Freedom from Illness by Nurturing His Inner Wolf.
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