What are digestive support diets for dogs and cats and when to use them

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What are digestive support diets for dogs and cats and when to use them

If your pet has tummy trouble, changing their food can help their stomach get better. But what should you feed? Read our article to understand what digestive support foods are and how to use them.

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Diarrhoea, with or without vomiting, is probably the most common health issue in both dogs and cats. The problem can be due to various causes and occur rather suddenly.

But the good news is, the gut is a very fast-healing organ and its lining renews itself by default every 3-4 days. Meaning that, in absence of complicating factors (ingested foreign bodies or toxins, nasty viruses or bacteria, other diseases, etc), an upset tummy in your dog or cat is a short-term problem and can often be treated at home, as long as your pet is otherwise bright and well-hydrated.

The best way to do this is to support the stomach and the gut function by feeding your pet a digestive support (also known as a gastrointestinal) diet and probiotics.

In the past, it used to be advised to starve a dog or a cat with a stomach upset, based on the assumption that this was giving respite to the gut and time to recover. But, as it is sometimes the case with science, the newest research shows that the opposite is true.

The cells of the gut lining (called enterocytes), the ones doing all the hard work of absorbing the nutrients from food, also maintain a tight barrier that prevents microbes from the gut entering the bloodstream and for this reason are separated from the general circulation. Unlike the other cells in the body, they do not receive the nutrients needed for their own function from the blood. Instead, they rely on what they absorb from the food passing through the intestine. If there’s no food in it, they do not get nutrients. For their optimal healing, food has to be physically present in the gut. For this reason, it is no longer recommended that pets with digestive upsets are ever starved.

But it is true that during digestive upsets, the enterocytes are functioning at reduced capacity and are not that good at their absorbing work, hence the need to feed them something supportive.

What’s special about digestive support/gastrointestinal food?

The first thing about this kind of diet is that it is highly digestible and contains simpler components, like smaller protein and carbohydrate fragments that do not require a lot of processing before being absorbed.

They also tend to be lower in fat than usual foods too, since fat is more difficult to absorb with a sped up intestinal transit and makes the diarrhoea worse. (Please note that the Low Fat gastrointestinal foods listed below contain not just lower concentrations of it, but almost no fat at all and are meant for dogs with vomiting and diarrhoea due to pancreas conditions.)

These foods also contain electrolytes, to replenish those lost by vomiting and/or watery stools.

Gut flora can be affected by adverse conditions in the gut, like increased inflammation, but large numbers of bacteria are lost because they simply get flushed out with the faeces, hence the recommendations to give probiotics to counteract it.

But just adding new ‘good’ bacteria without supporting the entire gut flora through the upheaval is not enough. Therefore, other types of components added to digestive support foods are fatty acids and prebiotics that help the intestinal flora get back to normal. Dietary fibre is another addition that supports the bacteria, but also bulks up the stool, making it firmer, which helps to restore normal bowel movements.

Last, but not least, because pets with abdominal discomfort and nausea usually don’t have a great appetite, these diets are made to be very palatable, to smell very nice and be extra tasty.

How and where to get digestive support food?

Most pet food brands have a digestive support food in their offer, as a dry or wet option or both. Here are the ones most commonly used and recommended by UK vets, listed alphabetically.

Commercial gastrointestinal foods for dogs and puppies

Commercial digestive support foods for cats and kittens

The best place to buy them is either online or from your vet practice. Every vet practice stocks at least one type of gastrointestinal food. They are called prescription foods because they are meant for pets with health problems, but you can get them over the counter at the vet’s, without an appointment. Brick-and-mortar pet shops sometimes stock them as well, but not always.

Test a few options while your pet is well to find out one (or a few) they like the most and stock that in your first aid cabinet. That way you have it handy for a sudden stomach upset. These commercial diets are balanced, containing all the necessary nutrients and gut-supporting substances, so they are the best thing you can feed your pet with vomiting and diarrhoea, whether it takes a few days or a few weeks to settle their tummy.

Home-made digestive diets

However, if you do not have a digestive support diet to hand and no easy way to get one either, you can also prepare a home-made version and feed that to your pet for the first 24-48 hours. There’s two main things to keep in mind regarding home-made diets.

  • They are far from a balanced diet, lacking some important vitamins and minerals and the gut-supporting elements in commercial diets, which is ok for a short period of time, but it’s not recommended to have growing kittens or puppies on such a diet for longer than 3 days.

  • Unless you have a Labrador, once fed ‘people food’ for a few days, your pet might expect that to continue, begging in the kitchen each time you cook and refusing their old pet food. This is at best annoying and at worst may lead to nutritional deficiencies in your pet.

For dogs, lean, easily digestible proteins and carbohydrates are needed (at a ratio of ⅓ protein and ⅔ carbs). Good protein sources include cooked chicken fillet, white fish (no bones), turkey or scrambled egg. Cook these well, but simply, with no butter, oil, salt or spices. Chop finely once cooled so you can mix it thoroughly with the carbs or they will pick the protein only. Carbohydrate options include boiled white rice, pasta or potatoes, cooked until they almost fall apart. Keep the liquid in which they boiled, some of it can be added to the food for extra fluids. Do not cook more than what is needed to be fed in one day.

For cats, skip the rice, pasta and potatoes. Being specialised carnivores, cats lost most of their ability to digest carbohydrates, hence their usual disinterest in them. Cook for them chicken, turkey, white fish or egg, in the same way as for dogs, with no add-ons.

How often and how much to feed?

In the first 24 hours, we recommend that you divide the daily amount of food for your pet in 6-8 portions of roughly equal sizes and feed them these small but frequent meals. Over the next 2 days you can drop that to 4-6 meals per day, increasing the intervals between them and their size a bit (the overall daily amount remaining the same). On days 4-5, given your pet is improving, feed 3 times per day.

On a side note, for cats, eating small, frequent amounts is the natural way to feed since they generally hunt small prey they eat at once. If possible, feed them or give them the opportunity to eat often (at least 5 times a day) even when they are well. Dogs are fine with large, rare meals (1-2 per day), though some smaller breeds can be fussy and may also benefit from more frequent meals.

The commercial gastrointestinal diets have the recommended daily portions indicated on their websites and on their packaging, so use those as a guide. For home-made diets, you can use your regular food as reference.

If you’re feeding wet food only, simply calculate how many grams of wet food you are feeding in 24 hours and give the same weight of home-cooked food (weighed before you add the cooking water to it) in 24 hours, divided in portions as described above.

Dry kibble contains very little water, so it’s much more dense in calories-per-gram than the home-cooked diet, thus replacing it gram-per-gram will not provide your pet with sufficient energy. For a dog or cat that normally eats only dry food, increase the weight of the home-cooked digestive diet with ⅓ to provide approximately the same calories.

For pets fed a mix of wet and dry, replace the wet food amount gram-per-gram and top up the dry food amount with the extra ⅓. For example, a dog normally getting 200 g of wet food and 100 g of kibble per day will need to be given 333 g of chicken and rice (200 replacing the wet food + 100 replacing the dry food + 33 the extra third). Out of these 333 g of chicken and rice mix, 111 g should be chicken and 222 g rice.

When your pet’s tummy has returned to normal for at least 2 days, you can start gradually moving them back to their original food. Make this change back over the course of 5 days, replacing ⅕ of the digestive food with the old diet each day, ⅕ on the first day, ⅖ on the second and so on. This will prevent another stomach upset because of a sudden change in diet.

When to use digestive diets?

The answer is short and straightforward - whenever your pet shows acute signs of a digestive upset like vomiting or diarrhoea or more subtle, chronic ones like a variable appetite, abnormal or irregular stools, etc. As in the case of probiotics, you can’t do much wrong with a balanced, commercial digestive support food.

But whether your pet needs other interventions or treatments besides the gastrointestinal foods and probiotics to deal with their tummy issues, depends on what may have caused the issue in the first place, what is their general state and how the symptoms progress. See the dedicated articles on vomiting and diarrhoea in dogs and cats for more detailed information about when to speak to your vet.

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