A healthy digestive system is essential to your dogâ€™s well-being. The digestive system serves many important functions: it takes in food, absorbs nutrients, maintains fluid and electrolyte balance, and gets rid of waste, says Dr. Carolyn Jochman, a veterinarian with WVRC Emergency & Specialty Pet Care in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
It also covers a lot of area. â€śThe digestive tract includes the oral cavity (salivary glands, tongue, teeth), esophagus, stomach, small and large intestine, liver, pancreas, rectum, and anus,â€ť she says. ?
The canine digestive system isnâ€™t the most glamorous topic, but understanding how it works puts you in a better position to determine if your dog is sick and needs to be seen by a vet. It can also guide you in making decisions that will enhance her health.
Here are 7 interesting facts about your dog's gastrointenstinal tract and health.
1. Dogs Get Heartburn, Too
Dogs can get indigestion and heartburn just like humans.
In the fasted state, stomach acids are very similar in people and dogs, says Dr. David Brummer, a veterinarian with Orchard Park Veterinary Medical Center in Orchard Park, New York. After eating, however, dogs produce more acid than we do, he says.
Our similarities mean that â€śdogs and people benefit from the same antacids.â€ť But before giving your dog an over-the-counter antacid, talk to your veterinarian. You will want to be sure you arenâ€™t risking any potential drug interactions or side effects.
Veterinarians can also provide you with important usage guidance for antacids to ensure you are not putting your petâ€™s health at risk.
But more stomach acid doesnâ€™t translate to letting your dog eat potentially contaminated foods. â€śDogs are no less sensitive to food poisoning (bacterial contamination) than are people,â€ť he says. For example, â€śThe practice of feeding raw meat to dogs carries a demonstrated risk of food poisoning.â€ť
2.?Food Moves Through a Dog's GI Tract Three Times as Fast
â€śDogs have a small intestine that occupies about 25% of the total gastrointestinal volume, which is consistent with other omnivores, including people,â€ť Dr. Jochman says. â€śThe small intestine of a cat, a true carnivore, occupies only 15%.â€ť
On average, food moves through the canine stomach a bit slower than ours, but food movement through the intestines is a little faster, says Dr. Brummer, who is board-certified in internal medicine.
Gastrointestinal transit time is six to eight hours for dogs, while in people itâ€™s between 20 and 30 hours, Dr. Jochman adds.
3. Dogs Canâ€™t Chew Side to Side
Youâ€™ve probably noticed that your dog canâ€™t chew side to side. â€śThe dogâ€™s jaw only allows for up and down motion when chewing,â€ť Dr. Jochman explains. â€śPeople have side-to-side movement that allows more grinding of food.â€ť
The difference probably has to do with our historical diets. The wolf-like ancestors of dogs ate mostly meat that could be easily ripped and swallowed, but people also relied on gathering or farming plant material that required more chewing.
4. Most Dogs Can Digest and Absorb Carbs
But modern dogs are considered omnivores, just like we are. They originally ate a carnivorous diet in the wild, â€śbut since they have been domesticated, adaptions have been made that allow them to digest and utilize plant-based nutrients,â€ť Dr. Jochman explains.?
True carnivores, like cats, have a higher nutritional requirement for taurine, arachidonic acid and certain vitamins, which are available in animal fat and protein sources.
â€śOmnivores donâ€™t have a higher requirement for these and create their own arachidonic acid from vegetable oils,â€ť he says.
â€śMost normal dogs have no difficulty digesting and absorbing carbohydrates,â€ť Dr. Brummer adds. So, â€śthere is no benefit to feeding grain-free diets to normal dogs.â€ť
5. Cholesterol Doesnâ€™t Impact a Dogâ€™s Health
Your doctor may advise you to lower your cholesterol level, but you wonâ€™t hear the same concerns echoed at the vetâ€™s office. â€śCholesterol does not have the same effect on their heart, and their digestive systems are designed to accommodate animal fat,â€ť Dr. Jochman says.
Dogs also donâ€™t have the same issues with colon cancer, says Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York. â€śSo the idea that eating foods high in soluble fiber or low in saturated or trans-fats will provide any health benefit is really unknown at this point.â€ť
Vets say one of the keys to health is keeping your dog at a healthy weight. â€śObesity is related to exacerbation of many health problems in dogs and is our number one battle,â€ť Dr. Wakshlag says. â€śIf there is any one thing that we can do, itâ€™s talk to our vets about how to curb obesity.â€ť?
6. Diarrhea and Vomiting May Be Bigger Problems Than You Thought
Gastrointestinal diseases account for about 10% of veterinary visits, says Dr. Jan Suchodolski, associate professor and associate director for microbiome sciences of the Gastrointestinal Laboratory at Texas A&M University, in College Station, Texas.
â€śDiarrhea is one of the most frequent clinical signs,â€ť he says. â€śAbnormal stool may also be a first symptom of a more systemic disease process, such as kidney, liver, and some endocrine disorders.â€ť
Vomiting is also a common symptom. An acute bout may resolve itself over a day or twoâ€”vets will often recommend a short, 12-hour period of fasting to â€śrestâ€ť the GI tract, followed by a bland diet, Dr. Jochman says. â€śBut when the clinical signs continue or are especially severe, testing is often recommended to attempt to find out what may be causing the distress,â€ť she says.
Imbalances with other organs, such as the kidneys, can also cause gastrointestinal signs. â€śSo it is important to see your vet to determine the best treatment for your dog,â€ť Dr. Jochman adds.
7. Your Dogâ€™s Poop Tells a Lot About Her Health
You can learn a lot about your dogâ€™s health by studying her poop (an unpleasant, but necessary task).
â€śThere are a variety of causes for abnormal stool,â€ť says Dr. Suchodolski, who is board-certified in immunology. â€śMost episodes of acute onset diarrhea are typically self-limiting within a few days, as dietary indiscretions are a frequent cause.â€ť
Parasites, bacteria and viruses may also cause diarrhea, he says. â€śDepending on the underlying cause, the animal may or may not need appropriate treatment for the infectious agent. If diarrhea persists for several days, and/or there is blood in the stool, the animal should be examined by a veterinarian who can determine the most appropriate course of treatment.â€ť
On the other hand, if your dog isnâ€™t pooping and is straining to defecate, she may be constipated, which if prolonged, may cause serious health issues, Dr. Suchodolski says.
One important takeaway is to contact your vet if you notice anything suspicious. â€śEven short episodes of diarrhea or constipation that occur periodically, especially in combination with other signs, like weight loss and loss of appetite, may indicate a more complicated disease process,â€ť he says.
Another key point is that you regularly monitor your dogâ€™s poop habits. â€śIt is important for the owner to daily monitor how often the animal defecates and the consistency of the stool,â€ť Dr. Suchodolski says. â€śThere is some variation between animals and also variation from day-to-day, with some animals having consistently softer stools or harder stools than others. But generally, with time, the owners should be able to establish whatâ€™s normal for their animal.â€ť
Featured Image: iStock.com/chendongshan
By: Paula Fitzsimmons