"You can spot a dog on the wrong diet a mile away," says Nelson. "Their coat is dull and they look lethargic." Some breeds, such as German shepherds, are more prone to digestive issues than others, but all dogs can suffer the consequences of a diet that produces too much stool and thereby precludes proper nutrient absorption.
Veterinarians and dog food manufacturers agree that dogs need to eat food with moderately fermentable fibers. Below, Nelson shares her advice for identifying digestive issues and looking for specific ingredients in your dog’s food to ensure that it’s getting all the nutrients it needs.
Identifying Digestive Troubles
Unfortunately, the best way to know whether or not your dog is having digestive problems is to check its poop. Stools that are too hard or too soft may be an indication that your dog is either not absorbing nutrients from food, or that the food does not have the proper nutrients to keep the digestive tract healthy in the first place.
"If your dog is having problems with elimination or vomiting, you need to work with your veterinarian to investigate what is going on," says Nelson. "If you haven’t changed your pet’s diet and it has diarrhea for more than two or three days, vomiting multiple times a day, or has any blood in the stool, this indicates something more serious than improper digestion." Once your veterinarian has ruled out conditions like pancreatitis, parasites and inflammatory bowel disease, it’s time to talk about food.
Best Ingredients for GI-healthy Diets
- Beet Pulp: The term "digestibility" refers to how easily food goes down – and how readily absorbable its ingredients make its nutrients. According to Nelson, the best fiber source is moderately fermentable, which comes in the form of beet pulp.
- Prebiotics: These are ingredients that promote the gut’s natural, good bacteria while keeping the bad bacteria in check. The next ingredient on Nelson’s list of must-haves is the prebiotic fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which crowds out the bad bacteria and feed the good.
- Grain Sorghum and Barley: Research has found that the combination of these complex carbohydrates also enhances digestibility. providing a stable source of energy throughout the day.
The above ingredients enhance gastrointestinal tract health, allowing your dog to absorb vitamins, minerals and other beneficial components, like vitamin A and fish oils.
If your dog is having digestive problems despite being on a diet that includes beet pulp and prebiotics, talk to your veterinarian about a veterinary intestinal formula. "I often try a prescription diet for a short period, and then taper off to a nonprescription food," says Nelson. "The prescription diet usually serves as a temporary solution. Once the pet gets through a tough time, we go back." Nelson adds that some dogs need to remain on the veterinary-prescribed food. "It is more expensive, but less so than continuous trips to the vet. If you find something that works, you can stick with it."
It’s important to note that GI tract problems are often stress-related. "Whether their favorite person is away from home or they are engaging in fun activities, like a long hike, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which can lead to an imbalance of bacteria in the gut and can require treatment with antibiotics," she says. Taking care of your dog’s GI tract will help to ensure that you and your pet can enjoy each other’s company for many meals to come.