A healthy gut is part of our pets’ overall well-being. Gut health has been linked not only to digestion but to immune system function, skin and coat condition and even behaviour. There is a large microbial population in the gut that is key to the health of this body system.
There is always a balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the large intestine, and a healthy gut has a significantly larger population of “good” or beneficial bacteria than “bad” or undesirable bacteria. In order to maintain a healthy balance, the beneficial bacteria need to be supported and nourished and the intestinal environment needs to be effectively cleared of waste.
Fibre is important more maintaining a healthy gut, but it is not the amount of fibre that is most important, it is the type of fibre that is important. Quality pre-biotic fibre is readily fermentable by beneficial bacteria. A few sources of fermentable fibre are chicory root, beet pulp, flaxseed, lentils, oatmeal and apples. Insoluble fibre is not fermentable and does not support the microbial population in the gut. Some insoluble fibre is beneficial for gut health because it helps to clean dead cells and waste from the intestines.
While the right kind of fibre is essential for maintaining the gut microbiome, there are aspects of other nutrients that are important as well. Protein, fat and starch, while not typically related directly to gut health, are important to consider. Unlike fibre, these are nutrient we do not want in the large intestine since they can have a negative impact on gut health. These nutrients need to be highly digestible so that they are almost entirely broken down and absorbed in the small intestine, and all that is left is waste to be excreted. When high levels of these nutrients wind up passing through into the large intestine, they can inhibit beneficial bacteria or support undesirable bacteria.
Undigested fat that passes into the large intestine can interfere with the function of beneficial microbes by coating their cell membrane, essentially smothering them so they cannot function properly.
When starch passes into the large intestine, it becomes food for lactic acid bacteria, which, you guessed it, release lactic acid. This disrupts the pH of the gut and negatively impact beneficial bacteria populations, allowing undesirable bacteria to begin to take over.
Protein that is not fully digested is consumed by proteolytic bacteria in the gut. These bacteria can become pathogenic, migrating up the digestive tract into the small intestine where they could cause a lot of damage. These types of bacteria also have the potential to produce and release toxins that may be absorbed into the blood stream or cause damage to the intestinal lining.
While fibre is very important for maintaining a healthy microbial population in the gut, it won’t matter if you are feeding the best fibre source possible if the other nutrients in the diet are not digestible enough.