How to Support Your Dog's Microbiome
Five years ago I adopted my first dog and my life has never been the same. Before Toby, I didn't even know I was a dog lover. It was my partner's idea to get a dog and I was really nervous about how our life would have to adjust to accommodate a dog.
Then I met Toby and he changed everything.
If you're a dog person, you know exactly what I mean. They become as much a member of your family as any human relative. They are your baby, your best friend, and make you feel a love you never even knew you had the capacity for.
In September of 2021, we added another canine companion to our family! Juniper has been our first puppy and we couldn't love this sweet girl more.
Of course, I want to do the best I can in terms of keeping them healthy and happy. Since I'm a nutritionist I got really interested in how to feed my dog and today I'm sharing what I have learned along the way and what works for us. If you have a furry friend at home, you may be interested in caring for their gut health as well.
Note: I am not an expert in canine nutrition. This is what works for us and the information I have gathered through self-study of books, journals, podcasts, and Facebook support groups but is definitely just the tip of the iceberg. Always consult a professional before making changes to your pet's diet.
Deciding What to Feed Your Dog
These days, we have an overwhelming number of options when it comes to feeding our dogs. I remember the days when pet food was a matter of wet vs. dry. Now, options are overwhelming:
Pet store kibble
Veterinary clinic kibble
Pre-made raw meals
Dehydrated raw food
DIY raw food
The list probably goes on...
When I started researching this topic I was totally overwhelmed.
Similar to human nutrition, there are so many conflicting opinions and people tend to have strong opinions on what dogs should be eating.
We wanted to feed Toby raw but in the first week he was experiencing symptoms like frothy vomit and straining when passing stool. He was very underweight and our primary concern was getting him to a healthy weight. As a new pet parent, I got really freaked out and went back to kibble because that's what he had been eating when he was rescued.
Access, education, and finances can all be barriers when it comes to nutrition for both ourselves an our pets. Not everyone is going to have access to the same amount of time and money that I have to put into feeding my dogs. It doesn't make you a better/worse pet parent. Just love them and take care of them, it's enough.
Kibble: Is Grain Free Better?
Before Toby, I had no idea there were so many kibble options. I think I spent 45 minutes in the pet store on our first trip, just trying to wrap my head around formulas.
Because I have Celiac Disease, we keep our home a 100% gluten-free space. So I knew a grain-free kibble would probably work best for us. I actually assumed this would be healthier for him as well, but when I started looking at formulas I found that a lot of grain-free kibbles contained a ton of legumes.
Ingredients like chickpeas, lentils, green peas, and yellow peas were often high on the ingredients list. I found this interesting because my work with human nutrition has taught me that people who don't tolerate grains well also tend to have issues with legumes. I was not able to find a single legume-free option for dog kibble.
Legumes in Dog Food
Grain-free dog food has recently come under fire for potentially contributing to taurine deficiencies and heart problems in dogs. The most well-known study on this was not peer-reviewed and likely heavily affected by industry ties, but there is definitely a potential issue with replacing meat and grains with legumes. Many veterinarians are reporting an increase in dogs with heart issues since grain-free diets have become popular.
As with human food, "health-washing" is a real issue. My current understanding is that companies use a lot of legumes to keep costs down which may affect taurine levels or compete with taurine absorption. Regardless, grain-free diets are not better by default.
After a lot of trial and error, we ended up finding a formula that he thrived on but contained higher levels of legumes. Because of the taurine issue, I make sure to feed high taurine foods every day. Some of these include:
Sardines (raw or canned with water, no oil or salt)
Beef or chicken heart
We will add these to his kibble as toppers or feed them throughout the day. He always gets his own order of sashimi when we get sushi and we usually cook extra, unseasoned protein for him at dinner time. Kibble is intended to be a balanced diet so you don't need to do these extras, but it works well for us.
One of the simplest things you can do to help your dog's digestion is to re-hydrate kibble with some warm water before feeding it to them. This way they don't need to drink a ton of water with their meals and we have found it does down a little easier.
To do this, heat up about 1/3 cup of bone broth (without onions!) or water for every 1 cup of kibble and mix them together about 10 minutes before feeding.
You can also use a mix of water and raw fermented goats milk, or add a spoonful of plain, unsweetened yogurt or kefir to the mix for probiotic benefits.
Probiotics For Dogs
The American Kennel Club recommends the following probiotic strains found naturally in dog's microbiomes:
I give my dogs probiotics every day for extra gut love. Here are a few of my favourite ways to get them in:
Unsweetened yogurt or kefir
Raw fermented goat's milk
Thrive ProGut supplement (powder that contain both probiotics and prebiotics)
It's impossible to write this post without mentioning raw feeding! Our puppy, Juniper, is eating mostly raw and doing great but we are still learning as we go and relying mostly on pre-made raw formulas with some extra supplements since she is a puppy.
I've learned a lot about ratios and balancing from the following resources:
Since we live rural, we are grateful to have access to Big Country Raw for pre-made meals and local farmers as we attempt to do more DIY raw.
A lot of sources I read early-on suggested that you cannot mix raw and kibble due to different rates of digestion. Barium tests have found that this is not accurate and, just like with humans, dogs are capable of digesting mixed meals. The most important thing is finding what keeps your dog healthy.
More Real Food
Just like humans, dogs evolved eating whole foods. Currently, 1 in 2 to 1 in 3 dogs will experience cancer in their lifetime with dogs who eat green veggies being 90% less likely to experience cancer.
Some great sources of antioxidants to add in are:
As long as you are doing research and speaking with your veterinarian, adding some fresh produce and meat to your dog's diet will likely be beneficial, regardless of what you're feeding them as a base.
If you're getting started, remember that some healthy foods for humans are toxic to dogs (grapes, onions, cacao). I recommend these resources for determining whether a food is safe for your dogs: