It has been said that those of us with Swissies fall into two categories: those with dogs who have bloated and those who will. As such, we try to keep up with the latest findings in bloat research, but the reports are often confusing and even contradictory. Soak the food before feeding. No, wait – don’t soak the food. Feed from a raised bowl. No, actually… don’t feed from a raised bowl. How are we to make sense of it when even the researchers don’t understand it? How can we prevent it when we don’t truly know what causes it?
For this reason, bloat is especially challenging to approach from a holistic perspective — which is to go to the root cause of the issue. Because we really don’t understand the source of the issue, it is more difficult to pinpoint the best methods of prevention. There are, however, a number of things that we can do to reduce our dogs’ chances of bloating.
Of course, diet is at the top of the list. When you consider that processed foods can take up to 16 hours to digest, it’s no wonder that many believe a balanced raw diet to be the best possible preventive measure you can take. Those who do feed raw report far fewer cases of bloat, so many bloat-prone breeds are gravitating more and more toward a more natural, raw diet. Unfortunately, that’s just not practical for many. Raw foods do provide enzymes crucial to the digestive process (which are destroyed in the processing of commercial food), but for those who cannot offer raw foods, a digestive enzymes supplement may be your dog’s best defense.
Perhaps more to the point of raw feeding, however, is the lack of grains. Current thinking holds that hyperacidity in the stomach may be a factor contributing to bloat, and grains are mostly acidifying. When we consider that grains were added to processed dog foods as a cheaper way of increasing the protein content, it becomes clear that grains are not the dog’s preferred source of protein. Dogs eat animals. By adding so much grain, is it causing hyperacidity in the deep-chested breeds? If you prefer feeding processed food, consider switching to a high-quality grain-free formula.
Another factor in digestive health is intestinal flora. Although we know that antibiotics kill the good flora as well as the bad in the colon, we tend to overlook the fact that tap water from a public source does the same thing due to chlorination. Healthy intestinal flora aids in the absorption and assimilation of nutrients through the intestinal walls, so we want to try to replenish as much flora as we can. Plain, whole milk yogurt is a good start and kefir is even better, but they offer only so many strains of good bacteria, so you may want to look into a good probiotic if you are concerned about your dog’s digestive health.
The easiest thing you can do to start supporting your dog’s digestion is to just make some tea and pour it over his or her dinner. If you don’t have an herb shop nearby, check the local health food store to see if they carry bulk herbs. (For the locals in Cambridge and Somerville, Cambridge Naturals in Porter Square has an excellent bulk herbs section.) The first herbs that I like to start with for a dog prone to bloat are the acid reducers like Meadowsweet and Yellow Dock. Meadowsweet’s high salicylic acid content makes it a great choice for dogs with aches & pains – especially rheumatic complaints in joints and muscles. Yellow Dock may be the better option for those dogs with high liver values, hot spots, or constipation.
Herbs to aid the overall digestive system include Chamomile, Licorice, and Blessed Thistle. Chamomile is just a nice calming herb that tends to soothe the digestive system. Licorice root encourages peristalsis, thus helping to keep things moving along, but should not be used for dogs with kidney issues. Blessed Thistle is a wonderful bitter specific to the stomach and spleen, so I like this herb for bloat-prone breeds. Of course, each dog is different and may benefit by different herbs depending on his or her constitution.
Stress is a huge factor in bloat. Is your dog timid or nervous? Nervine relaxants may be a nice addition to your nightly tea. Scullcap is specific to jittery dogs (those who tend to be afraid of their own shadow), but any timid dog will benefit by it. Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety can benefit by St. Johnswort. Lemon Balm’s anti-depressive qualities make it very well-suited for digestive issues due to anxiety. In thinking about stress, remember the exercise mantra – a tired dog is a happy dog… Er- just not after meals!
Some of the common aromatic herbs used in cooking are the best carminatives (herbs that dispel gas). Fennel and Dill are a couple of good choices here. Mints are wonderful carminatives (I like Catnip for dogs – it’s a nervine relaxant but a digestive stimulant), but should not be included if you use homeopathic remedies, as they tend to counteract the homeopathic. Ginger is great for aiding digestion (and has anti-inflammatory qualities, which may serve the senior dog well), but is a very warm herb and I wouldn’t use it with dogs who tend to run hot — especially in the summer. For these dogs, Wild Lettuce may be a better choice.
Interestingly, another health issue common in my own breed (Swissies) is splenic torsion. Just as the stomach can twist and torse, so too can the spleen (though this is not as common in other breeds). This condition warrants its own article and I will not go into any depth here, but it is worth noting that in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), organ systems consist of a pair of organs – one yin or solid and one yang or hollow. In this system, the stomach is paired with the spleen (St/Sp), so supporting this organ system through a TCM perspective can be very beneficial for Swissies. A couple of herbs specific to the spleen are Ginger and Astragalus. Astragalus is an immuno-modulator as well, and I can’t imagine any dog that wouldn’t benefit by a little Astragalus every day!
Of course, should your dog exhibit signs of bloat or torsion, he or she should be taken to a vet immediately. If you use homeopathics, two to have on hand are Alumina and Carbo Veg. Wendy Volhard suggests using Alumina as soon as pica starts, and Carbo Veg if it progresses.
Hopefully, you will never need it.