Dog Food For Sensitive Stomachs: Improving Your Dog's Digestion

Dog | Food & Nutrition

Diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and malabsorption…it sounds like a Pepto Bismol jingle, but these are frequent symptoms of digestive distress in your pet. Dogs with chronic gastrointestinal issues can react to any changes in diets, including food, treats, table scraps, and anything they’ve “accidentally” consumed.

Many pet owners are nervous to change their dog food for fear of any digestive reactions.

In this blog, you will learn how your dog’s digestive system works, why it reacts the way it does, and which foods can help prevent gastrointestinal upset from happening.

Common Signs That Your Pet May Have a Sensitive Stomach:

While many dogs suffer from tummy troubles to varying extents, there are some signs that you may notice more frequently. Recognizing the symptoms of digestive problems will help you react and address the problems as quickly as possible.  

Here is a quick list of some of the most common signs that your pet has a sensitive stomach:

  • Gas
  • Loose stool/Diarrhea, either frequent or intermittent
  • Vomiting, different from regurgitation (which is usually due to eating too fast)
  • Inconsistent stool quality, frequently changing without dietary changes
  • ‘Scooting’ or dragging their bums on the ground
  • ‘Cling-ons’ are pieces of stool that stick to the rectum area (long hair pets excluded)
  • Excessive grass eating, usually accompanied by vomiting
  • Bowel movements outside of litter box/appropriate areas
  • Tummy gurgling

While occasional symptoms can be caused by dietary changes, ingestion of non-edible materials, or other underlying conditions, it is more likely that you will notice symptoms relating to food related sensitivities.

To be sure, take note of how often and severe the symptoms are. They may help you determine if a dietary change is required.

Quick Tour of Your Dog's Digestive Tract

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Now you know what to look out for, but before you can act, it’s a good idea to have a better understanding of how your pet’s body digests food and how some of the unpleasant reactions may occur.

This tour may give you some insight into whether your pet’s sensitivities can be fixed by a simple diet change, or if they require a more intensive care routine.

Mouth

The very first step of the digestion process is the mouth. In your dog’s mouth, both the teeth and saliva assist in the breakdown of food for digestion.

Teeth and jaw shape, as well as their digestive system, are specifically designed for tearing and breaking down flesh. Dogs are equipped with sharp, serrated molars and a wide-set jaw that moves vertically to slice meat like scissors, and allows them to swallow large chunks.

Saliva also lubricates food for easy passage through the esophagus and then onto the stomach.

Stomach

The next important stop on the digestive train is in the stomach. Canine stomachs use acid and bile to breakdown nutrients. Dogs have a very low gastric pH, which means their stomachs have a very acidic environment.

Hydrochloric acid is secreted to help produce pepsin, a type of digestive enzyme, that breaks down the proteins in food.

Small Intestine

The small intestine is a very important step in digestion. This is where food is broken down into its smaller components, like vitamins, minerals and amino acids for distribution to the corresponding systems.

Here, with the help of the pancreas, digestive enzymes take apart nutrients and allow those nutrients to pass through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream for distribution. Bacteria in the intestines aid in digestion by fermenting unused carbohydrates and protecting the body from harmful bacteria and infection.

When enough healthy bacteria is not present in the small intestine, food is poorly digested, resulting in many of the common symptoms of food related sensitivities.

Large Intestine

In healthy dogs, the intestinal wall of the small intestine will reject unprocessed or unusable nutrients, as well as toxins. This waste is sent to the large intestine for the final step of digestion.

The main function of the large intestine is to remove excess water from the waste and prepare it for excretion. Water absorption through the large intestine plays an important role in keeping your dog properly hydrated.

When irritation or inflammation occurs in the intestines, the natural pH balance can change. Your pet’s body is going to flush water through the intestines to try to regain an appropriate balance, leading to wetter softer stool, or diarrhea.

Gut Flora Basics in Dogs

Gut flora is a term used to describe your pet’s natural microbial balance. Your pet’s digestive tract is an ecosystem with both good and bad bacteria living and reproducing constantly.

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Healthy digestion relies on the good bacteria having a greater population than the bad.

While these healthy bacteria reproduce to continue populating your pet’s system, things like diet, genetics, and general health can either boost or limit their body’s ability to provide an appropriate environment for that bacteria to replenish.

Even though their bodies are designed to naturally balance their gut flora, some pets may need some extra help from their diet or supplements. Pets that aren’t fed the right diets, pets prone to digestive issues based on breed, or pets that have conditions, illnesses or diseases may all require a diet meant to ease digestion.

Common gastrointestinal disorders in dogs are:

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Chron’s Disease) - Inflammation of the intestines
  • Colitis - Inflammation of the colon
  • Dysbiosis (Leaky Gut) - Weakening of intestinal barrier that filters nutrients to the bloodstream

While not all dogs with sensitive digestion are affected by these conditions, addressing digestive problems at the first sign can be the most effective method to prevent them.

Prebiotics

Simply put, prebiotics are non-digestible sugars that feed intestinal bacteria. Gut flora feeds on prebiotics and assists the body in digesting nutrients, while prebiotics also feed the intestinal bacteria to help replenish and repopulate.

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For pets with unbalanced gut flora and chronic digestive issues, like the common conditions mentioned in the previous section, prebiotic supplementation or prebiotic additives in food can adversely amplify the problems.

Prebiotics feed all bacteria, not just the good guys, so if your pet is already overflowing with harmful intestinal bacteria, adding prebiotics to their food may not help the good guys get back on their feet.

Lots of foods contain naturally occurring prebiotics, so make sure that the amount in food and treats are considered before additional supplementation. In pet food, prebiotics are typically added in the form of Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) or Inulin, often sourced from chicory root.

Both FOS and Inulin can be found in a variety of ingredients used in dog food too, like oats, barley and apples. Feeding a food that heavily relies on nutrients from these ingredients may be providing too many prebiotics already, so supplementation isn’t necessary.  

Probiotics

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When dealing with unbalanced gut flora or chronic gastrointestinal issues, an effective solution is to add more healthy bacteria, or probiotics, with your prebiotics to give the good bacteria a leg up on the competition.

Probiotics are good digestive bacteria. Many high-quality foods use probiotic additives in their formulas to increase digestibility of their food and make transitioning between foods easier.

There are a few concerns arising from the inclusion of probiotics in pet foods. For one thing, most foods do not contain a significant amount of probiotics, particularly when compared to the amounts found in probiotic supplements, and therefore don’t make a huge positive impact on your dog’s gut health.

Also, being live organisms, probiotics are very sensitive to heat. Since most pet foods are processed at extremely high temperatures, actual viable probiotic contents of the food may be insignificant.

Some foods add probiotics after the cooking and extruding process of the kibble to increase the digestive effects of the food. Unfortunately manufacturer’s are less than forthcoming with this information.  

If you want to know if probiotics are added to your pet's food post-extrusion, you can ask your local pet store, contact us, or check out the manufacturer’s website.

If your pet has a sensitive stomach, it may be particularly important to feed a concentrated probiotic supplement to avoid digestive distress and to promote normal digestive function.

The most commonly know probiotic on the market is Acidophilus Lactobacillus, but many researchers agree that not all Lactobacilli strains, and there are many, stay viable after coming into contact with gastric juices in the stomach.

Probiotics need to make it all the way to the small intestine to be effective, so if the bacteria can’t survive the stomach acids, then it will be completely useless by the time it gets o the small intestines.

Look for supplements with a mixture of probiotic strains to increase the population of good bacteria in your dog’s system and control the population of harmful bacteria.

Probiotic recommendations:

Antibiotics

Some conditions or circumstances may require your pet to be prescribed antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria, all bacteria. So once your pet is finished with their treatment, a healthy dose of probiotics are recommended to replenish their levels of healthy bacteria.

For recurring treatments of antibiotics, it’s recommended that probiotics be fed in between treatments to ensure that their bodies are able to stay protected and can properly digest food.

Digestive Enzymes

Dogs rely predominantly on the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes. The 3 main digestive enzymes are:

  • Protease - to breakdown protein
  • Lipase - to digest fat
  • Amylase - to process carbohydrates

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Digestive enzymes are produced by the pancreas to help aid in the digestion of proteins, fats and carbohydrates and with the absorption of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. For dogs with recurring digestive disorders, the natural function of the pancreas may not be sufficient.

Aiding your dog with the addition of digestive enzymes can be the key to returning to normal digestive function. Powder and pill supplements can be purchased, but the most natural source of digestive enzymes comes from animal sources like tripe, kefir, or unpasteurized goat’s milk.

Tripe is the stomach lining of a grazing animal, like cow or lamb, containing the digestive enzymes of the animal as well as any unabsorbed nutrients from the animal’s previous meal.

Similar to probiotics, digestive enzymes can also be degraded by heat from cooking, so tripe in cooked pet foods may not be an effective digestive aid. Opt for fresh, raw green tripe whenever possible, to improve your pet’s digestion.  

Check out this blog to learn more about the Benefits of Tripe.

Food for Poor Gut Health

Now that you can recognize the signs and understand how to improve your pet’s digestion, you need to find a food that will complement their specific dietary needs.

Quality and digestibility play a huge role in digestive health, so let's look at some of the factors that you should consider when assessing your dog's diet and the possibility of change.

Species Appropriate Foods

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If your dog is eating foods that do not complement their needs or address their sensitivities, then their digestive health will continue to suffer. Dogs show many carnivorous features, including a lack of necessity for heavy carbohydrate content in their diet.

Aside from not being necessary, sugary carbohydrates stress the pancreas by forcing it to produce the necessary digestive enzymes to breakdown these foods. Excess sugars from carbs can also feed gut bacteria contributing to bacterial overgrowth.

Try finding food that has low to moderate carbs, preferably from low-glycemic sources, like whole grains or legumes rather than corn or brewers rice. This will limit sugars and reduce the stress on their digestive system.

Raw diets are designed to have minimal carbs and are often a good choice for pets with more extreme digestive issues. It’s both low sugar and limited ingredient, allowing you to implement the trial and error method.

While raw diets are the typically the best choice for extreme digestive problems, the right high-quality kibble or canned diet can keep your dog’s tummy troubles at bay too.

Glycemic Index

If you read our blog about Dog Nutritional Needs, then you know about the glycemic index and how different foods have different effects on your dog's blood sugar levels.

Choosing foods with limited, low-glycemic, healthy carbohydrates will have a positive effect on digestion. Carbohydrates are a source of energy, but they should also provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre, and some amino acids.

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Carbs void of nutritional value are fillers used in cheaper foods and companies that are trying to cut corners. These filler carbs not only supply unnecessary sugars to the body, but they strain the digestive system, leading to further GI problems and intestinal inflammation.

Many high-quality formulas use limited low-glycemic grain sources, like oatmeal, or legumes to obtain the majority of their nutrient dense fibre.

Again, raw diets follow this same philosophy and have the lowest effect on your pet’s blood sugar levels, of any food format.

Types of Food

The type of food that you choose to feed may impact their digestive health. Quality and quantity of ingredients are both vital to proper digestion. Check out some of the most common food formats to see if you are feeding the best type of food for managing your pet’s digestion.

Kibble

While kibble is extremely popular, due to cost, convenience, and palatability, it is also pretty carbohydrate heavy. Even the lowest carb foods still require a substantial amount of carbohydrates to support the texture of the food.

This is not to say that kibble is bad for digestion, but it may not be the best fit for a dog with regular digestive upsets. Avoid kibbles that contain excessive carbohydrates, especially when those carbs are high-glycemic. The sugars and digestive burden of these ingredients will surely contribute to digestive reactions.

Recommended Kibble:

Canned

Wet food is typically easier to digest than kibbles. They usually have a lower carbohydrate content, they are ground or shredded to reduce the effort needed to break them down, and the high moisture content helps improve digestibility.

While this sounds pretty great, canned foods can still be tough for sensitive stomach depending on the ingredients, not to mention that it’s pretty expensive to feed exclusively canned food.

Another factor is dental health. Canned food fed pets tend to have a great population of bacteria circulating their mouths, and that bacteria follow the same track that any food does. Healthy bacteria in the esophagus can be affected by harmful bacteria sneaking down from the mouth.  

A regular dental routine is recommended to all pets, but especially canned food fed dogs and cats. To learn more check out A Complete Pet Dental Care Guide.

Recommended Canned Food:

Raw

Raw foods diets are ideal for sensitive stomachs because they are minimally processed, are often very low in carbs and sugars, and digest quickly and efficiently.

Keep in mind though, that raw food diets are rich in protein and fat, and may be too rich for some pets. Portion control is important for pets with weight issues, but for those that have suffered from illnesses like pancreatitis, this type of diet can be risky if not transitioned and fed appropriately.

Recommended Raw Foods:

Track Your Progress

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Download Free Template

Any type of food trial or elimination diet will be time-consuming. In many cases, it can take weeks to get a full gauge of how your pet is responding to dietary changes.

Mistakes will be made and sometimes this can mean resetting the whole process!

We recommend keeping a small food diary for your pet. It’s a great way to track and remember which foods were working and which ones weren’t, as well as different results and setbacks that you’ve experienced throughout the process.

If your lucky, you may quickly stumble on the right food or supplement to help your pet’s digestive system right itself, but don’t be discouraged if at first, you don't succeed.

Speak with your vet, and remember to show them your food diary, to determine if underlying issues may be slowing your progress. Bacterial infections or chronic diseases may require medication or stricter food routines, so it’s always best to speak with a medical professional before making any drastic changes to your pet's diet.

If your pooch is prone to digestive distress, make sure the food you feed is appropriate for their needs, minimally-processed, made without fillers, rendered meats or by-products, and full of all-natural ingredients.

 What foods have worked for your sensitive pet? Let us know in the comments below!

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