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Understanding and Improving Your Dog’s Digestive System

Nuala McHugh

By Nuala McHugh

Updated: February 20, 2024

Our digestive systems have a lot to say about our overall health, and recently, gut health has become a hot topic in human well-being. It’s not just about physical health but also mental well-being — and the same goes for dogs’ digestive systems.

What makes it so important in dogs is that they communicate how they feel through their behavior. You probably monitor their digestive system more than you’re consciously aware — what their poop looks like, what their appetite is like, and if they’ve consumed something that doesn’t look gut-friendly (likely).

As a dog parent, keeping a close eye on your dog’s daily digestion and ensuring they consume a healthy diet is essential for their well-being. But why exactly is a dog’s gut health vital? And what constitutes the best diet for a healthy digestive system? This article will answer these crucial questions and guide you in maintaining your dog’s digestive health effectively. 

Does my dog have a healthy digestive system?

What is a dog’s digestive system?

The dog’s digestive system is incredibly complicated which does not make for an easy life. The system, comprising the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and colon, works to break down food, extracting essential nutrients.

The small intestine plays a crucial role in nutrient absorption, supported by diverse cell types and beneficial bacteria, contributing to gut health. A balanced diet sustains immune cells in the digestive system, ensuring overall health for your dog.

How can I tell if my dog’s digestive system is down?

It’s usually easy to tell if your dog is suffering from digestive sensitivities, whether due to a particular episode (usually caused by the dog eating something they shouldn’t have) or something more serious such as parasites or a chronic condition. Nonetheless, if your dog is experiencing digestive issues, here are some common symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea, with or without blood or mucus
  • Constipation
  • Increased gas or flatulence
  • A lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Dehydration
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal enlargement/distension.
  • Distress or inability to get comfortable1 

Why is gut health so important for my dog?

When we talk about the ‘gut’, it’s referring to the gastrointestinal tract which is essentially the path that food takes from the mouth, through the stomach and intestines before reaching the colon and leaving the body as ‘poop’.

The gut is important because it’s your dog’s first line of defense against pathogens and toxins. It’s also responsible for digesting their food, absorbing nutrients, and contributing to vitamin production. 

But the importance of dog gut health also impacts the dog’s immune system, body weight, metabolism, behavior, and brain.

What’s the best dog food diet for a healthy digestive system?

Diet is the number one way you can impact dog digestion and gut health. That’s because the food your dog eats will influence which bacteria survive and thrive in the gut. A well-balanced diet suitable for the age and size of your dog should provide them with a healthy digestive system.

Use dog food that supports digestive health

A dog food that meets the standards of the AAFCO will contain the essential nutrients required for health. However, fiber isn’t something that is always included in AAFCO-approved standard dog food

Certain foods will support digestive health better than others, and there are other elements of a diet that can support gut health which some dog food brands can include. For example, pre-, pro, or post-biotics, particular fibers, or balance of fibers are terms likely to feature on labels of food that support a healthy digestive system. 

Avoid human food

Many human ingredients do not pair well with dogs as we have different digestive systems. Typical human food is too rich and fatty for a dog to digest and while there are some safe human foods, many can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and even more severe conditions like pancreatitis. Often human packaged foods contain flavors or sweeteners which make them unsuitable for dogs.

It’s probably best to avoid giving your dog human food but if you do want to share something as a treat, make sure to research or seek expert advice before doing so.

Make sure your dog is hydrated

Regular hydration is a major assist to digestion as it starts the breakdown of food particles. The purpose of water for pets is to carry important nutrients into and out of the cells of the body, aiding in digestion and the absorption of nutrients. If you’re concerned that your dog may not be drinking enough water, consider taking them to the vet.

What other factors can influence my dog’s gut health?

Size

Naturally, the bigger the dog, the larger its intestine length, area, and volume. 2.

This means if you have a smaller dog, their shorter digestive system leaves less time for food to be digested and so highly digestible diets are beneficial to allow for maximum nutrient absorption — vice versa for larger breeds.

It’s also important to select an appropriate dog food according to AAFCO’s nutrient profiles, whether based on the age of your dog or their breed size.

Exercise

Along with a balanced diet, regular exercise is essential for a healthy digestive system. Just like humans, activity aids the movement of digestion and regular movement reduces the risks of constipation. 

Freedom of stress

Your dog’s mind and body are linked, so if they are feeling anxious, you can usually tell by their bowel movements. This is due to the microorganisms that populate the gut. There is a proven brain-gut connection and the health of each affects the other. 

Food allergies or intolerances

If you know that their diet is balanced and nutritious but they still experience poor dog digestion, although unusual, take a look at the possibility of food allergy in your dog. 

Generally, different foods suit different dogs, so even if your dog has no sensitivity to an ingredient, some ingredients or food recipes may simply agree or disagree with your dog.

For example, some dogs prefer grain-based formulas, while others don’t digest high-meat or protein diets easily — they’re all different, just like us humans.

However, it’s advised to visit the vet before removing a food group from your dog’s diet for this reason.

Changing diets

Your dog may also experience an upset stomach as a result of a new diet, ensure you transition them slowly and gradually if a new diet is required. 

What diseases stem from an unhealthy digestive system?

Issues such as pancreatitis, gastroenteritis, and gastritis can stem as a result of a poor digestive system. However, it’s more common that poor digestion and gut health have a knock-on effect on poor general health, so it’s important to keep on top of your dog’s gut for an overall healthy life.

Should I feed my dog probiotics and supplements?

If your dog is eating a balanced diet and appears to have a healthy digestive system, probiotics aren’t necessary. However, they are a great addition to any dog’s diet, particularly if they do experience digestive issues, and are good for strengthening the microbiome. 

We have a more in-depth article on probiotics if you’re considering introducing them to your dog’s diet: Should I Give My Dog Probiotics? 

Overall, a dog’s digestive system isn’t that much different from our own. Certain dogs can have more sensitivities than others, while many dogs won’t have any issues at all. It’s important to keep an eye on what’s going in and coming out of your furry friend, and adjust their diet accordingly.

Article reviewed by
Laura Ward

Pet Nutritionist

Laura studied BSc (Hons) Animal Science with an accreditation in Nutrition at the University of Nottingham, before working for eight years in the pet food and nutrition industry.

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