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Mastering Pet Health: A Deep Dive into Gastrointestinal Wellness & Nutrition

Reading Time: 6 MIN


Hello, I’m Dr. Scott Huggins, the Scientific Services veterinarian at Farmina Pet Foods for North America. Farmina is an Italian pet food company based in Naples. Depending on your time zone, feel free to enjoy an espresso, gelato, or a fine Italian wine during our discussion.

Today, we’ll delve into the crucial topic of our pets’ diet and their gastrointestinal system, particularly timely as we approach Thanksgiving and the holiday season. Diet profoundly influences overall health, as we’ve long observed in humans with conditions like kidney stones, diabetes, food allergies, and cardiovascular issues.

Pets eats dog food from a bowl. Dog and cat eating Studio Shot

Gastrointestinal Tract

The gastrointestinal tract, being a central hub, significantly impacts other bodily systems. Emerging research emphasizes its role in various diseases, underscoring its importance for both us and our pets.

This brings us to the essence of today’s presentation: “If the gut ain’t happy, then the body’s not happy.” We’ll explore the pivotal role of the gastrointestinal system in our pets’ well-being.

Before delving further, consider a scenario involving a dog named Tassie. Picture adopting Tassie, witnessing her health decline, and feeling helpless as a pet owner. Now, imagine the transformative impact of a simple dietary change through a clinical trial at Farmina, showcasing the profound connection between diet, gastrointestinal health, and overall well-being.

Our agenda covers the anatomy of the gastrointestinal system, insights into the microbiota, common gastrointestinal diseases, home management of vomiting and diarrhea, feeding tips, and recent research on the diet’s impact on gut health.

Golden Retriever and British shorthair cats are eating

Evolution of Dogs and Cats

Understanding the evolution of dogs and cats over time is crucial. Contrary to popular belief, dogs are not direct descendants of wolves but share a common ancestor. This ancestor was a hunter, preying on injured animals, but over time, both dogs and wolves adapted to human environments, leading to differences in their gastrointestinal systems.

Let’s explore how these evolutionary changes impact our pets’ dietary needs and overall health.

Over thousands of years, dogs evolved from scavenging for human scraps to becoming our companions. Changes in their diet led to alterations in their gastrointestinal tract, making them adapted carnivores or omnivores. In contrast, cats, descendants of Phyllis Sylvesteris, maintained a diet similar to their ancestors, as their main role was to control vermin.

Carnivores, identified by powerful mandibular muscles and pronounced canine teeth, have adapted mouths designed for catching and holding prey. Differences in saliva composition, with low amylase levels, highlight their low carbohydrate intake. Carnivores also possess fewer taste buds, reflecting their less varied diet, with dogs and cats not tasting sweetness.

Understanding these characteristics helps dispel the misconception that pets need a diverse diet. Dogs and cats rely more on smell than taste, emphasizing the importance of aroma in their food preferences. Their vomeronasal gland combines taste and smell, making smell a crucial factor in their attraction to food.

Dog and cat eating and drinking from the same bowl at home, concept of sharing and friendship

The Role of the Gut

The stomach’s main role is to break down food into a liquid form called chyme, preparing it for absorption in the small intestine. Here, digestion and absorption occur, reducing food to molecular levels for entry into the bloodstream. The large intestine manages water balance and excretes waste. The gastrointestinal (GI) system also aids the immune system, with about 70% located in the GI tract.

Microbiota, encompassing bacteria, yeast, and fungi, thrive inside and outside the body. The term “microbiota” is gaining traction, representing trillions of microorganisms crucial for a symbiotic relationship. Biodiversity in the microbiota, with diverse species, strengthens the GI tract’s resistance to changes. It influences digestion, providing vitamins, minerals, and supporting the immune system, even impacting emotional and mental well-being.

The gut-brain axis underscores a direct connection between the brain and the gut, possibly contributing to phrases like “gut feeling.” Microbiota changes, influenced by factors like anxiety or depression, are increasingly linked to health conditions such as Parkinson’s.

Pets, with a less diverse microbiota due to shorter gastrointestinal tracts, are sensitive to diet changes. Diet significantly impacts microbiota diversity, with the Western diet potentially reducing it. Antibiotics, genetics, environment, aging, and diseases also affect the microbiota.

GI Disorders

Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, commonly manifested as vomiting and diarrhea, are frequent reasons for veterinary visits. Determining the cause requires a systematic approach, considering infections, diseases, toxins, stress, medications, genetics, age, and dietary factors. Vomiting, regurgitation, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain are key clinical signs of GI issues in pets.

In cases of vomiting or diarrhea in pets, it’s essential to monitor their appetite, changes in stool, and signs of blood or mucus. Conditions like increased or decreased appetite may vary. Focus on the pet’s overall health and look for potential causes, starting with oral health. Regular teeth brushing is recommended, and a dry food diet may help manage tartar or plaque. Gastritis, gastroenteritis, or enteritis can cause GI issues, but these are nonspecific diagnoses, requiring further investigation for parasites, infections, toxins, or dietary issues.

Gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV), or bloat, is a life-threatening condition, especially in large breed dogs. Prevention involves avoiding intense physical activity near meals. Foreign body ingestion is common, so be cautious about what pets put in their mouths. Gastric ulcers can result from stress or long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Old sad golden labrador retriever dog lying down outdoors


Moving to the intestines, malabsorption disorders can hinder nutrient absorption, leading to hungry pets with diarrhea. Assessing the stool’s consistency using a seven-point scale can aid in describing symptoms to the veterinarian. Look for signs like color changes, blood, or mucus. If unsure about seeking veterinary help, consider factors like chronicity, simultaneous vomiting and diarrhea, changes in appetite, abdominal pain, or the age of the pet.

Home care involves monitoring, avoiding irritants, ensuring water access, and dietary adjustments. If transitioning food, do it gradually over several days. Picking the right pet food involves considering nutrient digestibility, composition, and energy content. Transitioning gradually helps prevent disruptions to the pet’s microbiota. Feeding frequency depends on the pet’s individual needs, with splitting meals two to three times a day recommended.

Regular stool samples are crucial to check for parasites that could transmit to humans. If there are signs of dehydration, lethargy, or weight loss, consult a veterinarian promptly. Overall, a vigilant approach and timely veterinary intervention can ensure the well-being of pets experiencing GI issues.

Pets, particularly cats, have distinct eating habits and preferences. Unlike traditional Thanksgiving feasts, they prefer small, frequent meals. Cats may wake you up demanding food, but they often eat only a few bites at a time. Managing their feeding routine involves avoiding conflicts, not taking the food away while they eat, and placing bowls in a calm location to reduce stress. Deciding between dry and wet food depends on individual needs, with both having pros and cons.

A sad dog lying on a hardwood floor.

Pet Nutrition and Gut Health

Quality pet nutrition, researched by companies like Farmina, contributes to maintaining optimal body condition, preventing diseases, and improving overall well-being. Research shows that certain diets can impact chronic inflammation in the body, emphasizing the importance of high-quality ingredients. Farmina collaborates with global researchers, conducting cruelty-free research that benefits pets without causing harm. Studies, such as those by Dr. Nolli, highlight the positive effects of limited ingredient diets on conditions like food allergies and inflammatory bowel disease in dogs and cats. Overall, understanding and managing your pet’s nutrition can lead to an extended, healthier life for your furry companion.

Argos, a participant in a trial, initially showed significant weight loss. However, after six weeks of a diet change, he regained a substantial amount of weight. Tazzy, enrolled for chronic diarrhea, also experienced positive results within six months, emphasizing the impact of dietary adjustments.

Farmina diets, characterized by limited ingredients, aim for simplicity and high quality. Products include low glycemic index starches, GMO-free ingredients, prebiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, and natural antioxidants. These diets promote digestive health and contribute to overall well-being. Proper diet and feeding practices can prevent and reduce gastrointestinal issues in pets. Choosing the right diet and adhering to feeding recommendations play a crucial role. Research supports the effectiveness of limited ingredient diets in promoting gastrointestinal health. Tazzy and Argos’s transformations illustrate the broader positive effects on the body.

Unrecognize woman feeding her cat at home. Teenage girl holding bowl with feeding for her hungry cat. Tabby cat enjoy eating with it's owner.

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