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Nutrient Availability To Digestion

Nutrient Availability To Digestion  

Just because the nutrients are contained in the food doesn’t mean the dog or cat can extract the nutrients. As mentioned earlier, the microbiome plays a pivotal role in the digestive, nutrient extraction and absorption processes, and it is a bit of a no-brainer to accept that a reduction in microbiome organism diversity, or a microbiome that is imbalanced resulting in continued low-level inflammation, can’t really perform in the best interests of the host dog.

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But there are other reasons why nutrients aren’t available to digestion, with two main factors being the culprits.

Firstly, the nutrients may be tied up in a form that is unable to be broken down by both the digestive enzymes and the action of the microbiota. A classic example of this and an ingredient that is sometimes found in dog food is feather meal (sometimes listed as “hydrolysed poultry by-product aggregate”), a hydrolysed protein from chicken feathers that is rich in the essential sulphur amino acid methionine. While the amino acid level is high, it is mostly contained in a form that cannot be digested by the dog meaning at least 60% of the amino acid is passed out the back end of the animal in much the same form as it was consumed in the first place.

Secondly, the manner of processing can also lock up the nutrients. In the case of the feather meal, damage to the protein through poor handling can alter the amino acid structure in such a manner that it is no longer able to be digested. Amino acids in their raw form exist as complex spirals of molecules with the spirals being connected by tertiary amino acid bonds. The actual amino acids in the spiral are connected to one another with secondary amino acid bonds, and the breaking of both the tertiary and secondary bonds is the process known as denaturing the protein. A visual example of a protein being denatured is observed when frying an egg, whereby the egg white turns from translucent to white as it is cooked or denatured. Once the tertiary and secondary bonds are broken through the cooking or heating, the process cannot be reversed, but the digestibility of the protein is now enhanced. However, if the protein (as in our egg white example) is exposed to continued heat, damage to the amino acid molecule itself occurs when the primary bonds that hold the structure together are broken. This then effectively renders the amino acids (protein) indigestible.

From the point of protein digestibility, cooking is a bit of a double-edged sword. Cooking the food improves many protein sources by breaking down those secondary and tertiary bonds, which is, in fact, commencing the digestive process and thus making life easier for the dog and the co-existing microbiota. However, prolonged exposure to heat will damage the protein by breaking the primary bonds, and thus reduce the total amount of available protein. Almost all dry dog foods, and particularly the shaped kibble varieties, are processed using the extrusion cooking method. This entails mixing and grinding all the raw ingredients before passing them through an extruder, which resembles an oversized meat mincer. During the process, the blend of ingredients is heated under pressure; the cell structure of the ingredients is ruptured liberating aroma and flavour components while forming new nutritional complexes. But the overwhelming advantage of this method is the speed by which it occurs; extrusion cooking is the fastest known method of thoroughly cooking food, and by virtue of the speed minimises damage to sensitive nutrients. In many ways, extrusion cooking can be described as a pre-digestion process. The negative to the process though, is that there is still a level of damage to heat sensitive nutrients, and it is up to the nutritionist to ensure sufficient overages of these nutrients exist in the raw mix to compensate for the cooking losses. And of course, it also goes without saying that using a kinder method of cooking that aids digestion won’t compensate for using ingredients that are poor quality or sub-standard.

“Just because the nutrients are contained in the food doesn’t mean the dog or cat can extract the nutrients…”

When using food as medicine to aid digestive upsets, it must be remembered that improvements to the microbiome and the stabilisation of blood nutrient levels will not occur overnight. Also, the nature of the problem will determine, to a large extent, your preferred way of addressing the issue.

Food Sensitivities

Are quite often wrongly referred to as food allergies, with the difference being that an allergy is most often a genetic-based disorder that is quite dramatic in its effect on the animal (particularly in relation to the skin), but is fortunately not very common. On the other hand, food sensitivities are more often associated with bloating, soft or loose stools and sometimes vomiting. However, whether the issue is an allergic reaction or a sensitivity issue, determining the precise cause of the problem can be difficult. One of the first actions is to seek information regarding the breed and the parent’s history to see if there is any evidence of allergies in that particular family. Also, the symptoms of a true food allergy can be anything from gut upsets, including chronic diarrhoea and chronic gas to itchy feet or ear inflammation.

Dogs that experience food intolerance issues will only exhibit digestive upset symptoms such as soft stools or diarrhoea, vomiting and gas, much the same as when you have a rich or spicy meal to which you are unaccustomed.

But whether the problem is an allergy or a sensitivity, the gut response remains similar. The allergen in the food triggers an immune response in the gut resulting in inflammation of either the gut lining, the skin, or both. An area of great interest in canine nutrition research is the role the microbiome plays in this immune response, and it is believed a reduction in microbiome diversity is to blame for many of these problems. Stress, antibiotics, pollution and chemicals from drugs and the environment are all seen as culprits, with the only long-term solution being to move to a more natural diet containing the diversity of sympathetic ingredients needed to foster the well-being and balance of the microbiome.

IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

Is an increasingly common chronic gut inflammation problem afflicting many of our canine companions. Drugs such as prednisolone are usually prescribed in an attempt to control the disease, but there is growing evidence to suggest cultivating microbiome diversity with food can actually reverse the disorder. Here at performadog and iPurr, we have been fortunate to receive feedback from relieved pet owners whose dogs have completely recovered and are drug-free after continual feeding of our formulations. These recoveries add weight to the belief the restoration of microbiome diversity is not only possible but an effective method of treatment. Naturally, if you have a dog who suffers from IBS, it is vitally important to work with your veterinarian as well as your nutritionist, and with careful management, there is no reason why your beloved pet can’t return to a happy and healthy life.

“When using food as medicine to aid digestive upsets, it must be remembered that improvements to the microbiome and the stabilisation of blood nutrient levels will not occur overnight…”

Leaky gut (Dysbiosis) – Dysbiosis is the technical term for the reduction of diversity of species in the microbiome. Now, I know we talk a lot about the number of species of microbiota in the gut both in this article and in others on this web site, but diversity is what true gut health is all about. In other words, please forgive us if this is all sounding a little repetitive!

In respect of Leaky Gut, the lack of microbiota diversity results in long term inflammation and degradation of the intestine wall, which ultimately allows undigested food particles and pathogens to pass into the bloodstream. The liver then has to attempt to deal with these particles and the immune system is mobilised to help. But unfortunately, as the leakage continues the body’s defences becomes overwhelmed and the immune system starts to see food as an alien invader, thus triggering an auto-immune response that impacts the health and well-being of the poor animal.

Many believe the use of antibiotics is the primary cause of dysbiosis, along with poor diets and the excessive chemical loading of the dog. But as we have already discussed, a poor diet is not necessarily easily recognised, so the loss of species in the gut can gradually increase over a long period until a critical point is reached. This is when the harmful bacteria gain the upper hand, resulting in damage to the gut lining with the symptoms of leaky gut being the first clue that something significant is amiss.

So how do we cure this problem, or better still, prevent it from happening in the first place?

Simple: only feed your dog a food that is known to contain ingredients that will foster microbiome diversity, while providing essential nutrients at the correct levels to promote health and well-being.

One useful adjunct to the treatment of any of the digestive issues that beset our dogs is to incorporate a probiotic supplement into your feeding plan. We have seen many dogs on Performadog and iPurr formulations that have responded quite quickly to a combined program of food and probiotics, but in horrible cases, it can take up to 2 years to fully restore good health and vitality. Should you need assistance in this area, please drop us a line at

Soft Stools

No discussion of digestive issues would be complete, without some mention of soft stools. Unfortunately, soft stools are more often than not caused by overfeeding. It seems many dog parents interpret the feeding guide on the back of the bag as being the absolute amount of food to be fed. Actually, the guide is just that – a guide, and allowances must be made for the level of activity, the age, the demeanour of the dog and the weather.

Naturally, young active dogs require more food than older, more sedentary adults, while dogs that are stress heads or nervous will also need a lot more food than its passive and peaceful counterpart. Weather, or the environment, is another significant influence on food requirement, with hot summer temperatures depressing appetite by up to 15%, while cold winter weather will increase food requirements by up to 15% of average. This means there can be as much as a 30% difference between what the dog needs in summer compared to its needs for winter. So the rules of thumb are:

If the dog is gaining weight, he is, and if he is losing weight, he is not eating enough. A given quantity of food will support given body weight, so once you have determined whether you need to feed more or less (as in point 1), you can tailor the quantity of food for your best friend to achieve the body of an Adonis.

We trust you have found some or all of the above of some benefit. Obviously, digestion and digestive upsets is a vast topic, and we have only skimmed the surface of many areas for consideration. So if you would like to add to the discussion, want more information on any aspect of the above, or would like to ask a question that hasn’t been addressed by this article.

Please email us at or

Bill Wiadowski 

Watch Bill discuss and answer questions on Pet Nutrition on our YouTube Channel

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