By Dr. Becker
Dysbiosis and "leaky gut" are two names for the same disorder. However, definitions for each are somewhat different, which makes things unnecessarily confusing.
Dysbiosis is often defined as an imbalance of gut bacteria – too few friendly bacteria and too many opportunistic or pathogenic (bad) bacteria. Leaky gut syndrome is defined as the inability of the intestinal lining to prevent undigested food particles or potentially toxic organisms from passing into the bloodstream.
I think it's simpler to look at the situation this way: the imbalance of bacteria is what causes the problem – inadequate supplies of good bacteria, plus an overgrowth of bad bacteria, and sometimes yeast. This bacterial imbalance leads to inflammation of the membranes of the intestine, which results in the condition known as dysbiosis or leaky gut.
Dysbiosis in pets is more often acknowledged by holistic veterinarians than by the traditional veterinary community. Holistic and integrative vets believe the consequences of dysbiosis in the pet population are just as significant and devastating as in humans.
Causes of Dysbiosis
The most common cause of dysbiosis in veterinary medicine is absolutely the use of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill both the good bacteria and the bad bacteria, which upsets the natural balance of bugs and depletes the supply of friendly bacteria that keep the GI immune defenses strong and resilient.
Other drugs also known to have the same effect are corticosteroids and the NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
Additional factors include highly processed diets; biologically inappropriate foods containing a large amount of grains; food additives such as dyes, preservatives, surfactants, emulsifiers and flavor enhancers; stress; ingestion of toxins; vaccines (vaccines actually stimulate gut-associated lymphoid tissue or GALT); and parasite infections.
Symptoms of a Leaky Gut
Typical symptoms of a leaky gut are gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
But dysbiosis can also cause or exacerbate a wide variety of other conditions, many of which may appear to have nothing to do with digestion. These include:
Hyperactivity Nutritional deficiencies Certain types of cancer Dry eye Immune system disorders; autoimmune disease Respiratory difficulties, including asthma Liver, gallbladder and pancreatic disorders Weight fluctuations Behavioral abnormalities Seizure disorders Bladder inflammation (cystitis) Gum disease Joint pain Allergies Heart disease Bad breath
How Your Pet Digests Food
The food your dog or cat eats begins to be digested in the mouth as it's chewed.
When the food gets to the stomach, it mixes with very acidic hydrochloric acid and gastric juices. Then this mixture enters the small intestine where the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes and the gallbladder secretes bile to further assist in the process of digestion.
The chemical digestive process continues into the small intestine, where bacterial degradation takes place. Once the food is adequately broken down, the membranes of the intestinal mucosa absorb the smaller, simpler nutrients. The remaining food is either further digested and absorbed, or moves into the large intestine where it's ultimately passed out of your pet as poop.
In order for this complex process to work efficiently, the environment of the GI tract must be healthy and functioning well.
The entire length of your pet's digestive tract, when healthy, is coated with a near-perfect balance of bacteria that protects against foreign invaders, undigested food particles, toxins, and parasites.
If gut bacteria is out of balance, the environment of the GI tract becomes unstable, which alters the process of digestion. The intestinal mucosa becomes inflamed and begins to leak the larger, partially digested substances from food particles into the bloodstream.
These large complex substances are antigenic and allergenic, meaning they stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies against them. This is what sets the stage for the occurrence of one or more of the disorders listed above.
Why So Many Pets Today Have Dysbiosis
Many pets these days – very early in life – are unfortunately given antibiotics. These are either topical or oral antibiotics prescribed for really minor, insignificant things, most of which could be resolved with natural substances. But many traditional veterinarians just want to send pet owners home with something, and unfortunately that something is very often an antibiotic.
To make matters worse, often additional medications like corticosteroids such as prednisone, or NSAIDs are administered along with antibiotics. These drugs exacerbate the gut problems created by the antibiotics.
Many of these same pets are also fed highly processed commercial diets containing a long list of preservatives and additives. The simple meat proteins in most of these diets have been altered by the extreme processing that pet food undergoes. They are usually combined with plant proteins and grains. So, the resulting mix is a brew of chemically altered proteins that are very difficult to digest, process, and assimilate.
Combine these high-stress foods with environmental stressors such as poor water quality and excessive chemical and drug exposure, and we've set the stage for many of the diseases seen in veterinary medicine today.
Healing a Leaky Gut
Holistic vets will tell you they see animals every day in their practice suffering from chronic debilitating diseases that have been caused or made worse by diet and digestive dysfunction.
This is why holistic veterinarians like me always start with the diet when setting up a treatment protocol for most of the sick pets we see.
Each case of dysbiosis is unique, so a customized healing protocol must be designed for each patient based on the animal's specific set of conditions. It's important to note there is no one cookie-cutter approach to healing every dysbiotic pet.
Most importantly, owners must recognize their dysbiotic pets have very fragile immune and digestive systems. A sudden change in diet or a harsh GI detox protocol could make these animals worse instead of better.
Sometimes holistic vets choose to address diet first, and then begin working to heal the gut. Other times a better approach is to provide GI support before making any dietary changes. And then there are some pets who require a leaky gut protocol and a dietary change simultaneously.
Dysbiosis treatment involves addressing food allergies and intolerances, as well as any underlying nutritional deficiencies caused by malabsorption or inefficient digestion. Appropriate probiotics, enzymes, and nutraceuticals must be prescribed to help reduce inflammation in the GI tract.
Probiotics are an extremely important part in the treatment of dysbiosis. They reseed your pet's gut with good bacteria and prevent an overgrowth of bad bacteria, which returns the intestine and mucosal lining to good health.
However, there are many different types of probiotics, each having its own merit and benefit. Some animals can't tolerate milk-based probiotics. Some animals can't tolerate probiotics derived from yeast cultures or even certain strains of non-dairy organisms -- hence the importance of working with a veterinarian that understands all of these different facets of dysbiosis.
In general, removing highly processed, high-stress foods from a sick pet's diet in favor of a balanced species-appropriate, low-stress diet, plus appropriate supplements to address inflammation and yeast, if necessary, and support of other organ systems including the liver and pancreas, can relieve symptoms, address the root cause of the leaky gut, and get the pet on the road to recovery.