Why Gut Health is Important for Your Dog

Bacteria may be the key to a healthy pet

Gut health has finally made it out of the shadows and into mainstream consciousness thanks to the steady flow of research on the microbiome (or gut flora) and its importance in wellness.

Science has proven a strong connection between the health of our guts and our overall health — especially when it comes to our pets.

While gut health can quickly turn into a complicated and overwhelming mess of information, I want to break down this fascinating subject into more…digestible…bites.

In 2018, I attended several seminars, conferences, and other educational programs around the US and Europe. The consistent topic across every single one of these sessions was the microbiota and micro-biome. Discussions centered around how they influence the health of humans and animals alike. It’s now well established that healthy gut flora is largely responsible for the overall wellness of the host, and that it can be considered as an organ, due to the crucial role it plays in nearly every body function [1, 2].

Bacteria: good vs. bad

Before we dive into all of these things, let’s talk about something most of us don’t want to: bacteria. Bacteria are everywhere, including on us and in us. In fact, according to the NIH Human Micro-biome project, they outnumber cells within the human body 10 to 1. The same ratio is believed to relate to dogs as well.  We are only just beginning to discover the importance of bacteria, viruses and fungi, and their role in our survival. 

We’re starting to understand that an imbalance of microorganisms within the human body is linked to many health problems and diseases. Like humans, is it possible that lack of diversity, or imbalance, of microorganisms within the canine body could be the cause of many of their health problems? Research is not just suggesting, but proving it is.

We are almost conditioned to believe that all bacteria are harmful. Turn on any TV and you’re drowned in ads for antibacterial soaps, lotions, sprays and the likes. While we know that exposure to the wrong types of bacteria, viruses, and fungi has the potential to cause infection and even death, not all bacteria are bad. In fact, lack of exposure to healthy bacteria, viruses and fungi has a negative impact on the health of pets and humans. Even more surprisingly, the lack of exposure to certain harmful bacteria is actually preventing our immune system from functioning at its full capacity.

If you Google “human bacteria,” and “dog bacteria,” you’ll find very different information. The human search uncovers both scholarly, and opinion pieces that highlight the importance of diverse microorganisms. The canine search reveals seemingly endless warnings about rare bacteria that can be dangerous or even deadly to humans. While there are risks to everything, do these dangers actually pose a human health concern? 

Probably not.

We also take every step to prevent every sort of infection and disease, as if it will create permanent harm. However, some diseases and infections might actually serve as a benefit to building the immune system. 

What if the body’s immune system were able to strengthen itself against much more harmful pathogens just by being exposed to, and allowing itself to fight off common less harmful pathogens? 

What if living in a hyper-sterilized world came at a price?

Not allowing our bodies and our pets’ bodies to strengthen their own immune systems might pose some risks.

What did the study say?

A Finnish study suggests that exposure to higher levels of pathogens may be the answer to a better immune system [3]. This study explored allergy prevalence between two human populations of different socioeconomic statuses, in similar geographic regions and climates. 

It was observed that the lower socioeconomic population (population A) had a much higher prevalence of bacteria and other pathogens that were known to be harmful to the population with a higher socioeconomic class (population B). 

However, population B did not seem to be negatively impacted by these bacteria. In fact, they were healthier because of them. In addition to that, population B did not have the same prevalence of allergies as population A. 

The conclusion was that exposure to certain types of pathogens actually allowed population B to develop a more responsive and effective immune system.

Before we examine some of the science behind this discussion, let’s indulge in a microbiology refresher:

Bacterium (plural: bacteria): Single-celled microscopic living organisms that occur in countless numbers. Bacteria are mostly harmless and exist in different types, which we will not get into.

Virus: A microorganism that is smaller than a bacterium. It cannot grow or reproduce independently from a living cell. These are usually infectious but also believed to occur as a healthy functioning unit of the human and animal microbiota.

Microbiota: The entire community of microorganisms colonizing a particular location; including bacteria, and other microbes such as fungi, archaea, viruses, and protozoans [4]. It is important to note that these include neutral, beneficial and pathogenic bacteria. This community is constantly changing, based on internal and external factors.

Micro-biome: Often confused or used interchangeably with microbiota, this term refers to the set of genes present within the microorganisms that make up the microbiota. The micro-biome has been termed “the second fingerprint,” because it is unique to each individual. The concept of the micro-biome was first suggested by Joshua Lederberg, who coined the term to signify the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms sharing our body space [5].

We now know the complex and symbiotic relationship between the micro-biome and the body, providing support and function for the digestive system, immune system, nervous system, and endocrine system [6].

Dysbiosis: An imbalance of diversity among the microorganisms that comprise the microbiota and therefore the micro-biome.

Immune System: The body’s defense system against pathogens. The immune system is made up of several organs, as well as substances they secrete that aid in protection. The microbiota makes a significant contribution to the function and effectiveness of the immune system.

Probiotics: Live microorganisms that, if consumed in adequate amounts, provide a health benefit to the host [7]. Humans and canines are prescribed or choose to take these to support the gut microbiota, or more simply to aid in digestion.

Prebiotics: These are selectively fermented ingredients that cause specific changes in the composition and/or activity of the gastrointestinal microbiota [8].

All of this is defined, it is true that from an immunological perspective, microorganisms are viewed as pathogens by the immune system which recognizes and eliminates them. However, the difference in gut microorganisms is that the majority are non-pathogenic, and contribute to proper digestion, behavior and immune function [4]. However, in the case of dysbiosis, the micro-biota, normally a health asset, can become a liability [9].

This has introduced some of the common terminology used to discuss important issues surrounding proper micro-biota. While sometimes microbiology seems unrelated to your career and the success of you and your canine, this could not be further from the truth. Adequate, safe and controlled supplementation with specie-appropriate probiotics may hold the answer to training difficulties, health issues and behavioral concerns.

For questions, clarification, or suggestions on topics for future articles please do not hesitate to email me at info@northpointpets.com.


[1] Jandhyala SM, Talukdar R, Subramanyam C, Vuyyuru H, Sasikala M, Nageshwar Reddy D. Role of the normal gut microbiota. World J Gastroenterol. 2015;21(29):8787-803.

[2] Sekirov I, Russell SL, Antunes LC, Finlay BB. Gut microbiota in health and disease. Physiol Rev. 2010;90:859–904. [PubMed]

[3] Haahtela T, Laatikainen T, Alenius H, et al. Hunt for the origin of allergy – comparing the Finnish and Russian Karelia. Clinical & Experimental Allergy. 2015;(5):891. doi:10.1111/cea.12527.

[4] Sekirov I, Russell SL, Antunes LC, Finlay BB. Gut microbiota in health and disease. Physiol Rev. 2010;90:859–904. [PubMed]

[5] Lederberg J., McCray A. (2001) ‘Ome Sweet ‘Omics – A Genealogical Treasury of Words. Scientist Inc.: Philadel- phia, PA, 15, 8.

[6] Horsley A. The Physiological Response to Dysbiosis Impacting the Immune, Endocrine and Nervous Systems. Nutritional Perspectives: Journal of the Council on Nutrition. 2018;41(3):10-16.

[7] FAO/WHO (2002) Working group for drafting guidelines for the evaluation of probiotics in food. Available at : ftp://ftpfaoorg/es/esn/food/wgreport2pdf 2002.

[8] Gibson G.R., Scott K.P., Rastall R.A., Tuohy K.M., Hotchkiss A., Dubert-Ferrandon A. et al. (2010) Dietary prebiotics: current status and new definition. Food Science and Technology Bulletin 7, 1–19.

[9]. O’Hara AM, Shanahan F. The gut flora as a forgotten organ. EMBO Rep. 2006;7(7):688-93.