Modern Medicine, Old-Fashioned Care

Aug 15, 2022 | Nutrition

How to Manage Your Pet’s Microbiome (and Reduce Inflammation) with Diet

Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care’s Dr. David MacDonald, DVM, CVA, CVSMT, is a big believer in the power of a balanced microbiome.

He witnessed the incredible impact it can have in his own home.

Dr. MacDonald is the proud pet parent of two dogs – a 3-year-old Mutt named Lendri and a one-year-old Mutt named Shay. When the dogs were adopted, both were dealing with digestive issues and intestinal parasites. Medications, he says, would have been the normal course of action, but one that frequently disrupts digestive functions. Instead, Dr. MacDonald opted to treat the microbial imbalance first.

“It corrected the problem,” he says. “Both dogs are in really good health now.”

His message to patients is a simple one: “Instead of choosing drugs first, you choose the gut first.”

“That’s the key to helping animals do better,” he continues. “It’s changed how I look at the way we treat our patients. And it hits home for me, in particular, because I’m looking at both dogs in front of me, now.”

Seeing Old Truths in a New Light

When it comes to dietary needs for cats and dogs, the company line has always been relatively the same:

“For a while, we’ve been sending the same message: an ideal diet should be high protein, low carbs,” he says.

Carbs, after all, are the driving force for inflammation – and always have been.

But the deeper one looks into the microbial world, new information emerges.

“The more it’s been established over the last 15-20 years, and the more it comes into the clinical realm of our practice, there’s more to it than just ‘carbs are bad.’ What it actually means is that we finally have a true understanding of why this is happening. Behind the curtain of what’s happening in the gut,” says Dr. MacDonald.

Your pet’s microbiome is a diverse population of “good” and “bad” bacteria. And it is so essential to the functioning of our pets’ bodies. When you can ultimately identify specific groups – and see the relationship they have with a current state of inflammation – important, life-altering decisions can be made.

“It reaffirms why things are happening,” says Dr. MacDonald. “We can say, ‘Yes, those carbs are making that inflammation happen,’ and now we know how to change the diet to see improvement.” but now we know specifically what to do to change that through the diet.”

Certain bacterial groups in your pet’s microbiome increase inflammation and certain groups decrease inflammation.

“You’re always trying to strike that balance,” he says. “When we say microbiome, we’re talking about the environment in the gut. Proper food and a balanced diet are driving the happiness of those bacterial groups by providing certain ingredients that not only nourish the body but also make the bacteria happy too. So, when we say, ‘high protein, low carb diet,’ we know there are certain groups of bacteria that thrive under those conditions that will positively change the state of inflammation in a way that we understand.”

Forging a Friendlier Gut Environment

Dr. MacDonald notes that it is possible to have a fantastic diet that fails because the environment within the gut was simply not conducive.

“The opposite is true, as well,” he says. “You can have a gut that seems to be OK, but if you don’t have a diet that reinforces it, things tend to lose integrity over time. Whether an animal experiences an illness of some kind, some gastrointestinal upset, or they were treated with medication – it can all skew that balance of the bacterial groups that we need. That’s when things can get out of control – even with a healthy diet.”

Getting back to good, and forging that solid environment in your pet’s microbiome, requires testing to establish a baseline.

“The best thing for the patient is to have a fecal test done first. That gives us a good profile of what’s happening inside. Are there too many of the good guys, are there too many of the bad guys, or are we just simply missing some of those? With that guidance – when we can see the state of what’s happening with the gut – we can then reinforce changes that are more specific to the needs of an individual patient.”

Testing, therefore, should always be a pet parent’s first step, while adhering to the general principles of high protein, low carbs, and minimally processed foods.

The Growing Benefits of Animal Nutrition

High protein. Low carbs. And… yogurt.

Well, maybe not strictly yogurt.

But the benefits of fermented foods – like kimchi and sauerkraut and goat milk – can be integral to changing the state of inflammation.

“We know fermented foods have a different way of influencing the gut and making those bacteria happy in a way that is designed to improve gut health.”

Antioxidants, too, and fiber – found in fruits and vegetables – are interesting allies in the battle against microbial imbalance.

“With inflammation, we have damage at a cellular level, which we refer to as oxidative damage. Antioxidants blunt and minimize some of those effects. So, something as simple as blueberries in the diet can be beneficial. You don’t need much, but it is something that is part of that nutritional profile that is addressing both the cause and the effects of that inflammation, as well.”

Dr. MacDonald believes there’s also always room to consider a raw diet, which he says is the best model for improving gut health.

“Part of that is because a raw diet is not processed. There are obviously also bacterial organisms in a raw diet that you can see. It’s putting good things into an animal’s system.”

Of course, he says, some pet parents are averse to introducing a raw diet.

“They might not like the idea of it, or it’s just too complicated for them to finagle,” he says. “What I always want patients to know is that there is always a way we can make a difference – regardless of the food we choose. Commercial, homemade, or raw diet – there are always ways we can make it work.”

With some dogs, introducing new – and occasionally complete foreign – foods into a diet can be a challenge. If this happens, Dr. MacDonald suggests taking things slowly, and making changes bit by bit.

“The first week, for me, is just introducing a little bit of that new food with a solid foundation of what they’re used to, so you’re not rocking the boat too much… and by the third week, you are kind of halfway into that transition.”

But here’s the good news: Dr. MacDonald cites breaking studies that show measurable changes with diet change after just one week.

“Those little things you’re adding to your pet’s diet start to make changes with microbial groups pretty quickly,” he says. “It’s easier for us to understand those changes, now. And even if you may not see immediate clinical effects, you know you are making a difference almost immediately by making those dietary improvements.”

A Gut Instinct is Validated

“It’s interesting,” says Dr. MacDonald. “As research continues with the gut, we see more and more information that just reaffirms all of the things we’ve known all along – that diet is so important, that gut health is so important, and that there are good reasons that these things need to be at the top of the treatment list instead of ‘Here’s a medication,’ or ‘Here’s something that’s going to make this problem go away.’ Those are just band-aids. They’re things that just help us get through the short term. But the long-term consequence for our animals is that it’s a missed opportunity to really improve the foundation of how their body functions.

Once proper food choices and sources are understood, a universal foundation can be established for a balanced microbiome.

“There are always ways for the patient to guide us through the process when we see what’s happening in their gut and making the decisions we need on a more individualized basis.”