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Optimize digestive performance

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

Optimise digestive performance

Constructing a nutritionally balanced diet to soothe, heal and optimise digestive performance, restoring health and vitality to the dog.

Aside from oxygen, everything a dog needs to sustain life originates with what they eat or drink. If the items ingested are harmful or deficient in the nutrients the body needs, then health deteriorates and disease ensues. The following article explores the idea that everyday foods available to all pet guardians from local grocery stores can not only provide pets with a nutritious, balanced diet but also soothe, heal and restore health and vitality naturally to the ailing dog. Healthy digestion begins with a healthy oral cavity. Strong healthy teeth firmly seated in strong healthy bone, supported by healthy gum tissue and strong musculature. Just as poor nutrition undermines the integrity of each of these components, good nutrition is vital in restoring and maintaining their health. It is important to note that some damage is irreparable, for example, if teeth are cracked, loose or diseased, or the gums are bleeding or weeping in any way then assistance should be sought from a veterinary dentist as tooth extraction and treatment of an underlying infection may be necessary to prevent further discomfort or disease to your dog. However, once this has been done there are a number of dietary considerations which specifically target a dog’s oral health and support a healthy digestive system. Teeth Healthy teeth rely on healthy tooth enamel which surrounds and protects the inner more sensitive and fragile components of each tooth. This enamel is at constant risk of damage or decay when food particles are left sitting on the teeth resulting in microbial, plaque and tartar buildup. Some foods are clearly more harmful than others; unfortunately the canine research can be very misleading with studies such as Buckley et al [1], affiliates of Mars Pet Food Company, citing the benefits of processed kibble over home prepared diets in regards to a pet’s dental health. Of course their study did not outline what a home prepared diet constituted making any comparisons problematic with a clear bias in the results and conclusions drawn. The more robust research targeting the human population consistently shows that low fat, low sugar, unprocessed foods which require a lot of chewing naturally clean teeth as the food is masticated. Health organisations such as the American dental association (ADA) therefore recommending a diet rich in natural protein, calcium, fibre, vitamin C and water as well as identifying Vitamin A as a key component in building tooth enamel[2]. In the case of our canine friends, the natural species appropriate solution is raw meaty bones which support the Protein, Vitamin A, Calcium and chewing requirements as well as having a naturally high water content. The bones should be of a size which involves all of the teeth for a reasonable length of time, not just a crunch and swallow but an appropriate size to sink the canines into and tear strips off, to shear chunks with the powerful molars on each side of the jaw, and to nibble tasty morsels’ with the small incisors at the front of the jaw. To support the dietary requirements for calcium the bones fed should be edible rather than recreational; this means a softer non weight bearing bone which the dog can grind down for ingestion [3]. Poultry, rabbit, goat & venison all provide great lean meaty bone options with wild and free range options readily available in New Zealand. Fruits and vegetables which are appropriately broken down by either crushing or fermenting will all support the dogs fibre and Vitamin C requirements, however, the selection is vast. There are many other considerations which can guide our selection of appropriate fruit and vegetables to provide the maximum benefit to the dogs’ digestive health; these will be discussed later in this article. Gum disease Periodontal or gum disease is often associated with the buildup of plaque and tarter on teeth and is a bacterial infection of the gum tissue, often visible as pale and/or swollen gums indicating poor circulation and the presence of harmful toxins within the gum tissue. In advanced cases the harmful periodontal bacteria is transported via the bloodstream throughout the body resulting in secondary infections [4]. As such, foods which support healthy gums by inhibiting harmful bacteria, reducing inflammation and promoting circulation to help with detoxifying the body should all be considered useful additions to a diet supporting healthy digestion [5]. Reducing inflammation In a pilot study involving adults with gingivitis Woelber et al.[6] found that replacing refined carbohydrates with wholefoods such as fish, fruit and vegetables significantly improved gum health in just four weeks with a 50% reduction in inflammation. This study, although conducted on a small group of participants is in line with the findings of other research which identifies several key nutrients for oral health including calcium, antioxidants, Vitamin C, Vitamin D and Omega 3 fatty acids[7]. Calcium, Vitamin D and Omega-3 can easily be provided to dogs by adding whole, cold water fish to their diet. Although prepared, i.e. minced, options are promoted by raw pet food suppliers the composition of these mince blocks is often unknown. Whole, raw fish on the other hand such as mackeral or sardines, are easily sourced for a reasonable cost. They provide the added mental and physical benefits of chewing with bones soft enough for small and even toothless dogs, whilst also providing a natural balance of nutrients to support oral and digestive health. Salmon frames and heads are also a great, nutrient rich option for increased variety in the dogs diet. A second food to include for gum health with it’s rich source of Vitamin D and other nutrients is Eggs. Eggs are considered a ‘whole food’, that is, they contain all of the nutrients required for good health. They are a super convenient food in their handy little ‘package’, easy to transport, store and serve. They are also a food which is easy for dogs to digest with no missing enzymes to trigger stomach upsets as with Dairy products or no cellulose walls to prevent nutrient absorption as you get with fruits and vegetables. Eggs are an excellent source of the highest quality protein available, suitable for dogs of all ages. They contain all of the vitamins, minerals, amino and fatty acids dogs need for good health which makes them an ideal addition to a balanced diet[3]. The nutritional or health benefits of eggs is reliant on feeding the whole egg, this is because the different components, shell, white, and yolk, all provide their own individual nutrient composition. Alone, each component is unbalanced, but together the components form a complete food [8].

It is essential that raw egg whites are not added to the diet without the yolk as they contain two inhibitors. One is Avidin, a protein which binds to biotin preventing its absorption [3]. The other is an enzyme which inhibits Trypsin [9]. Both Biotin and Trypsin are important nutrients for dogs with Biotin playing a key role in converting nutrients to energy [3] , and Trypsin an enzyme involved in the digestion of proteins[9]. If there are concerns over feeding the yolk or of a pre-existing Biotin Deficiency then the egg can be poached, cooking the white to destroy the Avidin present whilst leaving the yolk soft to retain as many nutrients as possible. Promoting circulation A great way to naturally improve circulation is to increase the concentration of nitric oxide within the body, utilizing its relaxing effect on blood vessels thereby stimulating blood flow. Nitrates found in many common foods are used by the body to produce nitric oxide, therefore adding some nitrate rich foods to the diet is recommended. In their 2009 study, Hord et al. [10] analyzed the nitrate concentrations of various fruits and vegetables and found spinach , with its 740mg/100g far exceeded all of the other fruits and vegetables tested making it an excellent option to include in our dogs diet. In addition, Spinach also tops the list in terms of supplying minerals such as calcium, copper, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc as well as being a great source of vitamins A, K, E and Folate [11] further improving the nutrient profile of our digestive diet. Some foods such as berries are not only rich in nitrates but have the added benefit of being rich in flavonoids, a type of anti-oxidant with particularly beneficial health impacts. Anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid which are found in the red, blue and purple berry varieties, have a proven anti-inflammatory function in addition to improving circulation. Blueberries are a particularly rich source of Anthocyanins with 163mg/100g plant matter making them a valuable addition to the digestive diet; this is in addition to their high concentration of other assorted minerals and vitamins[12]. Healthy gut The dogs’ ability to absorb nutrients from their food relies on a healthy mucosal lining of the gut which acts as a semi permeable barrier allowing beneficial nutrients to pass through whilst retaining those harmful or pathogenic substances [13]. The integrity of this vital barrier relies on the amino acid glutamine which, amongst other functions, is responsible for the growth and repair of the guts epithelial cells [14]. Glutamine is considered a conditionally essential amino acid for dogs as they are able to manufacture it within the body, provided of course that the relevant precursors are present. However, during times of stress their needs for this important amino acid increase and may exceed their production capability making dietary supplementation necessary[15]. Regardless of the form or severity of any gastro intestinal disease, restoring gut barrier function is key to resolving symptoms with Glutamine supplementation key in restoring this function [13]. An ideal source of glutamine is bone broth which is made by slowly simmering bones with an acidity agent such as apple cider vinegar to extract the vital nutrients from the bones and connective tissues, reducing them down into a gelatin form. This amino packed gelatin can be fed daily without fear of excess or toxicity and provides the body with the amino acids necessary to reduce inflammation and heal the mucosal gut barrier restoring both form and function[14]. Once symptoms of GI disease have subsided it may be tempting to eliminate this nutrient packed food from the dogs diet, however, dogs have a daily requirement for Glutamine to maintain a healthy gut barrier and for those with a history of Gastrointestinal issues maintaining dietary supplementation of Glutamine not only supports ongoing gut barrier health and function, but provides added protection against future damage[13]. Celery – ulcers Celery is a useful dietary herb, although often thought of as a vegetable, with beneficial digestive properties which could further boost the healing power of our digestive diet. The leaves, stalks and seeds are all safe to add to our diet to provide valuable antioxidants which have been shown to significantly increase the mucosal wall of the Gut and provide protection against further damage, particularly ulceration which may occur as a result of Dysbiosis [16]. Dysbiosis When considering any form of gastrointestinal dysfunction it is important to include consideration of the gut biome as the community of bacteria present directly impacts not only digestive health but the overall health of the dog. The gut biome of healthy adult dogs is relatively stable as any introduced bacteria are unable to compete with the bacteria present, however, factors such as diet, age and environment can all affect the community of bacteria present dog[17]. When the microbiome is altered in such as way as to result in functional changes then Dysbiosis is deemed to have occurred with gastrointestinal dysfunction interrelated with Gut Dysbiosis [18]. Inflammation or degradation of the gut lining may increase the level of oxygen within the gut resulting in harmful changes in the microbiome contributing to dysbiosis. Therefore, providing bone broth to heal the gastrointestinal barrier is an important step in not only restoring gut barrier function but also supporting a healthy Gut biome. Glutamine, of which bone broth is a rich source, plays a key role in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, increasing the friendly and decreasing the unfriendly bacteria to preserve and maintain a healthy gut function [13]. Probiotics & Prebiotics To further enhance the gut biome it is beneficial to include both a prebiotic and a probiotic into the dogs’ diet. Prebiotics support the gut biome by increasing either the number or activity of the current microbiome community; essentially feeding what is already present within the gut. Although there are multiple options which could be considered, for the present study bananas top the list due to their convenience. They are easily sourced locally, cheap to purchase and require minimal processing with a simple peel and mash all that’s required before mixing with our other ingredients. Pectin, found in bananas, has been shown to increase the volume of beneficial bacteria, both individual beneficial colonies of which there are multiple forms, as well as the overall total beneficial bacteria present when fed as part of a dogs diet[19] making them a useful addition. Probiotics The ingestion of probiotics provides an external source of beneficial bacteria to the individual which can displace harmful pathogens within the gut[19]. Adding a probiotic to the diet can also be beneficial as it aids in reducing symptoms of Gastrointestinal dysfunction such as diarrhoea as well as providing ongoing protection from future intrusions of pathogenic bacteria[17]. Various prepared probiotics are marketed for dogs with somewhat limited information on their efficacy, however, one item which is well researched as that of sour or fermented milk products such as kefir or yoghurt. Plain natural greek yoghurt is a highly digestible source of protein, vitamins, enzymes and other nutrients which can be a useful addition to the dogs diet, in moderation of course [3] and fits nicely with our philosophy of healing foods rather than supplements. Yoghurt is simply fermented milk; the bacterial fermentation process involves the converting of lactose into lactic acid by the lactic acid bacteria present. This ultimately means when feeding yoghurt you are not only feeding a low lactose product but lactic acid bacteria such as Bifidobacteria, a known probiotic which promotes and supports digestion and bowel health[28]. The Lactobacillus ingested may not be able to compete with the Biome already present and therefore not become a part of the dog’s microbiome, however, they will provide other benefits as they produce metabolites and antimicrobial peptides which not only influence the microbiome but also interact positively with the immune system[17]. With many dogs enjoying this healthy milky treat, and the convenience and affordability for pet owners, it is a simple yet effective addition to our dogs’ digestive diet. For further gut biome improvement the incorporation of fermented vegetables is recommended as an additional probiotic source. The fermentation process for vegetables, like yoghurt, is rather straight forward although it does involve some advance preparation which may not suit some pet owners. However, the option should always be considered as the fermentation process improves the nutritional and health promoting properties of the vegetables fermented [20]. Nutritious non starchy vegetables such as carrots, beets, pumpkin and squash are all great options for dogs due to their prebiotic nature, the fermentation process adding the probiotic benefits which further increases the beneficial properties of this dietary component. The vegetables selected, like all dietary ingredients should be free of pesticides and preferably organic to avoid introducing any toxins into our dogs’ diet. Preparation involves finely chopping or mincing the vegetables before placing in a glass or ceramic jar with a little salt and fresh water to ferment for 2-3 days at room temperature. Only a small amount is fed each day meaning a batch of fermented vegetables can last a long time when stored in the fridge giving added convenience to the pet owner following that initial preparation[21]. Intestinal parasites A constant challenge for all dog owners is parasite control with many different forms present in the environment which following infection, work to compromise the intestinal wall, circulatory system, other organs and overall health of the dog[23]. Incorporating foods with Anthelmintic properties can support the dogs’ resistance to these parasites and reduce the need for chemical Anthelmintic preparations for which a growing resistance continues to develop [22]. The most prevalent mode of infection for dogs is via ingestion. Either by eating the infected feces of an intermediate host or by ingesting parts of an animal infected with parasites. For example, ingesting organs infected with Hydatid cysts which then develop into the mature Hydatid tapeworm [23]. New Zealand is in the rather enviable position of being deemed ‘Hydatid free’ since 2002 following an extensive eradication program with strict controls remaining in place today to prevent the reestablishment of Hydatid disease. Provided owners follow the directives of either sourcing their offal from an approved MPI registered processor, or in the case of wild game, freezing the game for at least 10 days prior to feeding then the risk of infection is negligible [24]. There does however remain a significant risk of infection from multiple other parasites such as whipworm, roundworm, Hookworm and threadwork as well as protozoa such as Giardia and Coccidia. Any and all of the aforementioned may be present in the dogs environment and all of which following ingestion may compromise the mucosal layer of the intestinal wall [23] compromising digestion and overall health as a result making anthelmintics essential in some form for every dog. Both the flesh and seeds of various pumpkin varieties have been studied for their potential use to combat parasite infection and disease with demonstrated Anthelmintic effects. Grzybek et al, [22] found that feeding an extract based on ground pumpkin seeds significantly reduced egg hatching rates, larval development and adult motility in all nematodes present making this a valuable addition to our digestive diet. Pumpkin seeds contain phytic acid, classed as a food inhibitor phytic acid acts as an anti-nutritive agent by preventing the absorption of various nutrients[25]. Dogs lack the enzyme phytase in their digestive tract meaning they are unable to metabolise phytic acid leaving the seeds to pass through the digestive system intact, complete with the beneficial nutrients they contain[25]. For pumpkin seeds to be a nutritious addition to the diet they need to be ‘processed’ in a way which mimics what occurs when eaten via the gut contents of prey. The most effective way of doing this is by grinding or finely chopping, and then soaking for 24-48 hours which activates the phytase enzyme within the seeds breaking down the phytic acid. This mixture can then be added to our other dietary ingredients ready for serving as required. Garlic A second natural anthelmintic to include in the diet is raw, freshly crushed garlic. In addition to the powerful anthelmintic properties which raw, freshly crushed garlic provides are an abundance of nutrients beneficial to general health and immunity with its rich source of vitamins, minerals and trace elements in addition to its anti-oxidant, anti-carcinogenic and immunity enhancing pharmacological effects[4].

As with all dietary items, source is important and the garlic should be raw, fresh and organic (or grown yourself) to ensure it's free of any toxins and retains its naturally occurring enzymes. The medicinal power of garlic primarily comes from the compound Allicin which is formed by the mixing of Alliin and Alliinase when a fresh clove is crushed. Prepared in this way, it is considered safe to add up to the equivalent of one garlic clove for a 25 kg dog [27], the amount actually fed should be adjusted to stay below that equivalent limit based on the dogs’ weight. There are a few exceptions, garlic is not recommended for pregnant dogs or puppies and if a dog is on any form of prescribed medication then care should be taken to identify any possible interactions before adding it to the diet. Perhaps most important is the anti clotting attribute, any dog scheduled to undergo surgery should avoid garlic completely[5].

Pancreas When optimising our diet for digestion we also need to consider the health of accessory organs such as the pancreas which may be compromised by genetics or prior dietary choices. The endocrine function of the pancreas is to produce sufficient levels of the hormone ‘insulin’, releasing it directly into the blood stream. Once in the bloodstream it enables the glucose present to move through cell membranes and into tissues where it can be broken down and provide valuable energy for the bodies essential functions. When the pancreas is unable to produce a sufficient volume of insulin to balance the glucose present in the blood stream, blood glucose levels continue to rise and the disease diabetes mellitus results[29]. Additional strain is placed on the kidneys as they aid in removing the excess glucose from the blood allowing it to be excreted in the urine, usually with additional water excreted too. As the glucose levels within the blood continue to rise the damage extends beyond the kidneys with the liver and other organs all at risk of suffering irreversible damage [30]. To avoid placing any additional stress on a potentially already compromised Pancreas we can avoid starchy vegetables in our digestive diet, opting for other more nutritious options which will meet our dog’s nutritional needs without unduly raising blood glucose levels together with foods which may support Pancreatic functions. The addition of fermented foods mentioned earlier in this paper are ideal for supporting pancreatic health, in addition to providing probiotics they provide anti-diabetic properties which warrants further discussion. Although the mechanisms may require further study to fully understand it is thought that the bioactive compounds which are produced during the fermentation process, such as phenolic compounds and antioxidants, are responsible for the anti-diabetic properties observed in studies which involved the feeding of fermented vegetables to those with various degrees of Type II diabetes. Results vary depending on the types of foods fermented, for example, fermented fruits do not appear to have anti-diabetic properties and should not be included, however, non starchy vegetables such as the carrots, pumpkin and other vegetables mentioned earlier are all likely to provide anti-diabetic support in addition to supporting a healthy gut biome[26]. These vegetables are a valuable addition to the diet with valuable antioxidants for healthy immune systems, soluble fibre to support a healthy gut biome and bowel movements as well as anti-inflammatory properties. If fermenting is not an option for the pet owner then other preparation options rather than exclusion should be considered. For example, carrots could be lightly steamed before being pulverized, whereas pumpkin could be baked before being mashed with cooking effective in improving the bioavailability of nutrients in these vegetables [31]. Green tea Green tea, at least locally, appears to be an uncommon addition to raw diets despite evidence that it significantly enhances a dog’s insulin activity. In their 2007 study, Serisier et al[32]. even went so far as to propose that ingesting green tea may “reverse metabolic disturbances by improving insulin sensitivity”. A bold conclusion to draw from their results which clearly demonstrated improved insulin sensitivity in obese dogs when fed the equivalent of 3 cups of tea per day for humans. The recommended dosage for our diet would not exceed the equivalent of ½-1 cup of steeped tea per 10kg, per day[4]. The exocrine function of the pancreas is to secrete pancreatic juices containing three types of enzymes: trypsin, amylase and lipase required for digestion of proteins, starches and fats respectively[33]. When the body is performing well the enzymes reach the small intestine where they are activated to digest the intestinal contents. If the process goes awry these digestive enzymes become active within the pancreas gland, this causes a cyclic reaction of auto digestion, inflammation, increased enzyme production and pancreatic damage impairing pancreatic function, the disease known as pancreatitis[30]. An unbalanced or nutritionally poor diet places a greater enzymatic demand on the pancreas and on the digestive system as a whole. A common belief is that consuming an excessively fatty meal will trigger a case of pancreatitis as the pancreas is over stimulated to produce the enzyme lipase, responsible for digesting fats, which becomes active within the pancreas gland and the process of auto digestion ensues. Another school of thought on pancreatitis is that the pancreas, like other organs in the body, has a finite level of capability and that over time its capacity to perform its tasks reduces until such time as it simply wears out[34]. We can reduce the demand placed on the pancreas by providing a nutritionally balanced diet utilizing lean meats such as the wild and free range options previously mentioned, together with a selection of organs which are an essential component when constructing a nutritionally balanced diet for dogs[3] . Ideally Liver is the first organ to join the diet as it’s an organ rich in a range of macro and micronutrients when compared with other organs such as heart, brains, kydneys etc. It is the richest natural source available of Vitamin A as well as providing both Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids and Vitamins E, D, K and B-group [3]. Beef liver is the richest source of Phosphorus, zinc, copper and manganese whereas Lamb is the richest source of Iron, although either would easily provide a nutritious addition to our dogs diet. Our second organ of choice to add is kidneys. Like Liver, kidneys are a rich source of essential fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins[3] . They are also the richest organ source for sodium and selenium, especially beef although lamb is also a rich source if a different protein option is required[35]. Other organs, at least locally, are a little more difficult to purchase with raw suppliers offering an ‘Offal mix’ rather than for individual sale. As each organ offers its own nutritious package, a mix provides a good convenient and nutritious option to add to the diet. However, care must be taken to identify the contents of the mix, if it includes liver and/or kidney then these should not also be added separately to avoid any toxicity issues.

Dietary components


The proposed diet outlined in this article was based on raw foods widely available in local grocery stores and identified many species appropriate foods with well documented beneficial biological actions. This demonstrates that a diet which heals, soothes and restores healthy digestion is clearly accessible to all pet guardians provided they are given the knowledge needed to prepare such a diet. The aim was to outline a selection of foods which can be used to restore and optimise a dogs’ digestion in the presence of any one of a number of digestive ailments naturally. Although the foods outlined incorporate a nutritionally diverse profile in line with the BARF model of raw feeding [3] there may be specific nutrients lacking which would warrant additional supplementation. For example, if elements such as Iodine or selenium are lacking in the soils on which crops are grown or animals are raised, then the foods derived will also be lacking in those elements[3] . The only way to ensure the diet is complete would be to add specific supplements to address those nutritional gaps, the proposed diet is therefore not considered complete and further analysis of the micro and macro nutrients contained is required in order to address any nutritional gaps present and beyond the scope of this article.


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