The function of good intestinal flora
“Without good intestinal flora, no good health” is an expression that, in our experience, is becoming ever more important (and not alone) for our dogs. We regularly see intestinal, skin and other health problems as a result of unbalanced or poor intestinal flora. We use the terms unbalanced or poor intestinal flora when there are too few different bacteria colonies and therefore also too few bacteria present in the intestines. If this is the case then food is not sufficiently digested and rotting and fermentation take place in the large intestine. The problems are mostly first observed as all sorts of intestinal problems, such as a rumbling stomach and wind, thin faeces, diarrhoea or faeces that is too hard. At a later stage the problem is usually followed by skin problems such as smelly matted coat with itching etc. The dog gets caught up in a vicious circle and it is difficult to break this without tackling it in a natural way.
What is intestinal flora?
By intestinal flora we mean all the microorganisms to be found in the stomach and intestines of people and animals. The name intestinal flora is not actually correct, given that it is a matter of bacteria and the term flora indicates plants. Furthermore it is not only a matter of bacteria in the intestines but also for example bacteria in the stomach. The intestinal flora is a good example of a type of cooperation between different types of organisms, where all involved gain an advantage (symbiosis).
So intestinal flora is an umbrella term for all bacteria in the intestines and comprises hundreds of types, with (in total) trillions of bacteria. In a healthy intestinal flora there are more bacteria than the number of cells in the body. In the intestinal flora there are useful as well as harmful bacteria; in a healthy intestinal flora these are in balance with each other.
The intestinal flora plays an important role in digestion. In addition a healthy intestinal flora is the best weapon against infections. As long as the useful and harmful (illnesscausing) bacteria of the intestinal flora are in balance with each other, there is no problem. However if the harmful bacteria gain the upper hand then the risk of illness is very great. Even if we do not notice that there is something wrong with the intestinal flora, a less than healthy intestinal flora can have a negative effect on health.
A healthy stomach and intestine is essential for a healthy body, because the body receives its required daily nutrition via a healthy stomach and intestines. This is why a healthy stomach and intestine forms the basis for good general resistance.
Creation of the intestinal flora
Just like every unborn individual, puppies have no intestinal flora before they are born. The first bacteria are taken in, in the birth channel, during birth. Following their birth the puppies come increasingly into contact with bacteria from the surroundings of the mother. Because they drink milk from the mother the pH (acidity) of the stomach is high enough for these bacteria to pass through the stomach undamaged. Upon arriving in the intestines they attach themselves to the intestinal wall and so the intestinal flora begins to build up.
As long as the puppies are drinking milk the intestinal flora comprises mostly bifidobacteria. These are extremely valuable, because these so-called ‘good bacteria’ produce various acids that kill harmful bacteria. When the puppies stop drinking milk the pH (acidity) of the stomach reduces. Harmful bacteria have less chance to reach the intestines. However the most useful bacteria that were able to get through during the period of feeding on milk, also no longer get through. In the wild we see that this is compensated for by the fact that the puppies get food that the parents have vomited. And in this way the development of a healthy balanced intestinal flora continues.
We hope that it is clear why this last example is of great importance in the choice of food for puppies (both before and after weaning), and why acidity resistant bacteria in tripe is also a good alternative for vomited food from the parents. Below we will explain more about the usefulness of acidity resistant bacteria in tripe, in building up the intestinal flora.
Intestinal flora and digestion
A balanced intestinal flora ensures good digestion. Bacteria can break down undigested remains of food. Above all during the break down of undigested carbohydrates (starch from grains) useful substances are created, the so-called short chain fatty acids. These fatty acids are used by the cells in the large intestines as fuel.
This stimulates the peristalsis (contraction) of the intestine, making the waste easy, (so without symptoms of constipation), to be excreted from the body. However if the dog has an unbalanced, poor intestinal flora, the result is diarrhoea, or faeces that is too hard. Both situations are unwanted, but in the case of the latter, people do not generally worry too much. In fact many people think it is convenient if their dog produces very dry faeces, and they therefore buy dog food that claims to produce less (thus thicker) faeces.
Besides the fact that hard faeces can indicate problems with the intestinal flora, faeces that is too hard has the accompanying disadvantage that the anal passage is insufficiently emptied. Because the dog has to press too hard, the openings of the anal glands become tightly closed. Because of this the content of the glands is not massaged out and remains sitting. If this is left sitting too long it can give rise to infection. This is the reason why faeces needs to have a consistency that means it is easily evacuated from the body by the action of peristalsis of the intestine. A good consistency of faeces is when it has the form of a sausage in which a few diagonal lines can be seen, and which breaks into pieces easily when it is scraped up.
Intestinal flora and resistance
The useful bacteria in the intestines produce amongst other things, acid which slows down or prevents the growth of harmful bacteria. In this way harmful bacteria which have survived the acidity of the stomach have less chance to multiply and thereby cause problems. Although the quantity of bacteria in the intestines is unimaginably high, there is a limit to how much the intestines can take in. This means that where useful bacteria exist there is no room for harmful bacteria and what is digested by the useful bacteria is no longer available for the harmful bacteria. In fact it is very simple: the more useful intestinal bacteria there are, the less is the chance of harmful bacteria, and therefore resistance is higher against external “attacks”.
The fact is that we have to ensure that when in need, if the dog has eaten “something wrong”, the intestinal flora is so well in balance that it is able to deal with it without problems. This is why, just like the fire service look after their equipment, we have to continue to maintain the condition of the intestinal flora. The short length of our dogs’ intestines is in principle a great disadvantage. Things can go wrong very quickly. Luckily nature has endowed members of the dog family with a very varied and broad intestinal flora in order to ensure that if they eat all sorts of remains out of necessity, during a period of scarcity, they do not get intestinal problems and diarrhoea. Imagine if a pack of wolves had eaten “something wrong” and then had to go hunting with stomach ache and diarrhoea. They would not get far and the survival of the pack would be endangered by this. We can conclude that diarrhoea and other intestinal disorders are not natural for our dogs and are in fact life-threatening.
Maintaining the intestinal flora
Once a balanced, healthy intestinal flora has been built up, we must ensure that this remains stable. Because dogs’ intestines are relatively extremely short, (seven times as short in relative terms as in people), the quantity of useful bacteria can quickly reduce and a disturbance of the balance in the intestinal flora comes about (dysbacteriosis). That is also one of the reasons why wolves and other wild relatives of the dog eat up the stomach and abdomen contents of their prey first in order, in addition to nutritional substances, to gain additional useful bacteria.
Experience has taught that dogs, in contrast to people, are not very good at maintaining their intestinal flora from within. Whether this has something to do with their very short intestinal tract or with the fact that they as “wolf” gain replacement intestinal flora following each hunt, is uncertain. The fact remains that if the intestinal flora is not fed daily and if good bacteria are not regularly replaced, the intestinal flora becomes steadily poorer and more out of balance.
Prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics
Prebiotics are specific dietary fibres and sugars that are not dissolved by the acid in the stomach and are not digested in the small intestine. So they arrive undigested in the large intestines. There they serve as food for the intestinal bacteria present. In being broken down by these bacteria, useful materials which encourage good health are released, which stimulate amongst other things the maintenance, growth, and activity of the intestinal flora.
Examples of prebiotics are manno-oligosacharides (indigestible fibres, shortened to MOS) and fructo-oligosacharides (indigestible sugars shortened to FOS). A very unusual type of prebiotics is the oligosaccharide in maternal milk. These are sugars that can only be digested in the large intestine and that have the task of allowing the intestinal flora to grow. These same oligosaccharides are also present in large volume in goat’s milk (unless this is heated to more than 45°C). This is also one of the reasons why Farm Food No.1 puppy & kitten milk is so good for puppies, kittens and other small recently born mammals, in the broadest sense.
Commercial probiotics preparations, for human consumption, are products that mostly contain large quantities of milk acid bacteria, and which are intended to enrich the intestinal flora with living lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. For our dogs these products are of little value in the first instance because the bacteria are nearly all killed by heating during the process of production of the food, and in the second instance they are not acid resistant enough to pass through the (in comparison with humans) very acidic dog’s stomach.
The only “probiotics” which, in our experience, survives the acidity of the dog’s stomach reasonably well is the bacteria flora in tripe from ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, dear, etc.). This is the reason why supplementing our dogs’ food with raw and unwashed (deep frozen) tripe is a very good and healthy means of maintaining the intestinal flora. You can do this by planning in a so-called fresh meat day once in the week, with Farm Food Fresh Tripe and Heart Complete or by replacing 20% (1/5) of a Farm Food HE mealtime with Farm Food Fresh Tripe and Heart Complete.
You can mix Farm Food Fresh with Farm Food HE without causing any problems. (You must never defrost Farm Food Fresh in the microwave because all the bacteria that are needed would be killed in a microwave). Should you be feeding your dog a different type of dry food from Farm Food HE; be careful then with mixing, because fresh meat or tripe mixed with extruded pellets can cause problems with digestion. You can recognise extruded pellets because these float on water. Farm Food HE does not remain floating on water. (See also our article “why pressed pellets?”).
Symbiotics are in principle products that contain both prebiotics and probiotics, and these form part of the daily nutrition. The daily nutrition must, in addition to supplying sufficient food substances, also feed the intestinal flora as much as possible. This is the reason that Farm Food HE has a very broad composition and has natural stomach protecting and intestinal flora feeding substrates added to it. In addition to the holistic character of Farm Food HE this is one of the reasons that the actual nutritional value of Farm Food HE is much higher than the calculated value.
Enemies of the intestinal flora
Factors that can disturb the intestinal flora are amongst others:
Food which is too simple and “easily digestible”
We often see that following a (diarrhoea) problem the advice is given to switch to an “easily digestible” (for example lamb and rice) extruded dog food. Through this the risk arises that the intestinal flora will become unvaried and poor (because certain bacteria colonies have nothing to eat and therefore die out). If the dog then eats something different, the intestinal flora is not in a position to process this properly and is put off balance with (again) diarrhoea as consequence. If this happens the dog finds itself in a vicious circle and people quickly conclude that he “has eaten something wrong again”. In the meantime it will be clear to you that the only solution to this problem is to build up a balanced intestinal flora again, and then to switch to food which respects and supports the flora.
Unfortunately very many dog foods still contain chemical substances which cause a breakdown of the intestinal flora. The most harmful for the intestinal flora of the chemical antioxidants are Ethoxyquine (E 324), BHT (E 321) and BHA (E 320). These substances seriously inhibit the growth of useful bacteria and thereby make room for harmful bacteria. Also the various chemical colourings, aromas, and flavourings cause the intestinal flora to be out of balance because they inhibit the growth of useful bacteria.
The great disadvantage of antibiotics (taken orally) is that they don’t only kill harmful bacteria in the intestines, but also useful bacteria. So this is also the reason why diarrhoea is often experienced following treatment with antibiotics and it is necessary to start rebuilding the intestinal flora right from scratch. Because the intestine of dogs is relatively many times shorter than in people, the consequences of treatment with antibiotics are much more extreme than amongst people. For this reason you need to be very conservative in giving oral antibiotic treatment, and particularly so with dogs (if it is given by injection, antibiotics have a much less negative effect on the intestinal flora).
Great changes also cause stress to our dogs. Think of puppies that go to a new owner, or of moving house, with all the “social” consequences of that.
Ageing can also have a negative effect on the intestinal flora. The older a dog becomes, the more attention you need to pay to maintaining a balanced intestinal flora. This is much more important than switching to an (unnecessary) senior dog food. Think here also of elderly people: they do not eat differently from when they were young, they just eat less!
To round this up:
As has become clear now a balanced, broadly built up intestinal flora is a very important, if not the most important, factor in health. If the intestinal flora is out of balance this can have far-reaching consequences. The protection against harmful bacteria both from within the intestine and from outside the body, is disturbed, and this increases the chance of various health complaints. A disturbed intestinal flora does not just give rise to various complaints such as diarrhoea, stomach cramps, wind, and reduction of overall resistance. There are also more and more scientists who believe that certain forms of chronic illnesses, including various forms of cancer, can be caused by a disturbance of the intestinal flora. We ourselves have established that the cause of most stomach disorders and skin problems, and also allergies, is to be found in badly built up and unbalanced intestinal flora. These problems can only be solved properly if the intestinal flora is first put back in order. As indicated in this article, partly because of the short length of the dog’s intestine, it is important for building up and maintaining healthy and stable intestinal flora that your dog should ingest certain (good) bacteria.
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