#71: How to Trial Gut-Brain Health

[00:00:00] Emily: Yeah, I feel like I say nutrition is a study of one as often as I say behavior is a study of one because there are so many times when we’re talking with clients, or students and the question, a question about nutrition comes up and it’s like, well, should we feed this diet? Or, you know, I can’t believe this dog’s not doing well, even though they’re being fed raw or, you know, things like that. And it’s like, “Okay, well, hold on. We don’t actually know what is ideal for this individual.” 

If you’re only thinking about the foods themselves and whether or not they’re kind of good, like morally good or bad, and not looking at how the body interacts with that food, likewise, we are likely to miss the mark in meeting that animal’s needs as best as we could. So, we really have to look at the interplay between the body, the learner, and the environment. The body and the food in order to assess where the magic is happening, like what’s actually going on. 

[00:01:00] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:01:17] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:01:19] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

Last week, we heard from Dr. Tim Lewis, and one of the topics we discussed was the biology of dogs. This week, we’re going to dive further into trialing gut brain health and talk about implementation with the animals in your life. In this implementation episode, Emily and I talk about Emily falling out of the space time continuum, nutrition is a study of one, and finding objective measures for a food trial. Let’s get to it.

Since we specialize in working with pets with anxiety related behaviors, I feel like I talk about gut brain health with almost every one of my clients. 

[00:02:13] Emily: Also me. 

[00:02:14] Allie: I know for at least me as an individual, my gut health definitely reflects in my physical, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing. When I can’t come up with words and I’m just like super long winded explaining something, probably brain fog, probably ate gluten.

[00:02:29] Emily: For me, it often looks like, “Oops, here’s a tiny obstacle.” And my brain is like, “Well, time to quit everything and just go to sleep for the rest of eternity. There’s no other possible solution.” And then rational me is like, “That feels like it escalated quickly.” And then I’m like, “Oh, right. I went a little hard on the phytic acids today, and now my gut is throwing a tantrum.” It’s not real. It’s just a gut brain connectivity issue.

[00:02:55] Allie: And we see things like that all the time with our pets too. One of the things we talk so much about is that when you don’t feel well, you’re not going to behave at peak performance. And eating things your body doesn’t like is a really common way that we see any living thing isn’t feeling well. 

[00:03:11] Emily: Yeah. I had already read the research showing that the gut produces more serotonin than the brain does, but when Tim said in our interview last week that that’s not just true for serotonin, but for neurotransmitters, I temporarily fell out of the space time continuum to have, like, a brain bending aha moment. I mean Okay, oh, that makes so much sense. When we can improve the health of the gut, we also, as a result, improve the health of our brain. 

[00:03:41] Allie: And before we go any further, just like the episode we recently did on physical exercise, we aren’t vets, or veterinary nutritionists. So, talk to the people who specialize in this before attempting anything with your pet. The first part of today is to be successful; we need to take a descriptive approach to nutrition. And for many, many people, ourselves included, that means challenging what we believe about nutrition and diets. And realizing that not only is nutrition a study of one, there’s so much more that we need to know about nutrition, especially for our pets. 

One of my first jobs was in a pet boutique, you know, like one of those it’s ritzy pet boutique places that sells all the fancy foods and, and all of that. And so, I learned from that store as a teenager about grain free diets and how helpful they were and all of that. I switched my dogs at the time over to them. I saw improvement with those dogs. Awesome. 

And then, you know, what was it like two years ago? There is that study that came out about the, uh, the big barrel-chested dogs having heart problems if they were on grain free diets and like the entire world of dog ownership just like exploded for a moment. 

[00:04:58] Emily: It was more than two years ago, but it’s fine. Time has no meaning. Carry on. 

[00:05:02] Allie: Okay. So, like five years ago.

So then, you know, everybody who was on a grain free diet with their dog was suddenly up in arms like, “Oh my gosh, green free diets are so bad.” All of this stuff, right? I had been feeding Oso a grain free diet, not necessarily anything, out of anything more than just habit at that point, I had been feeding grain free diet since I had started working as a teenager in that store, and that’s just what I did.

And so, after the study came out, I really had to take a step back and analyze how I knew what I knew and how I knew that it was the true or not. And I was like, “Hmm, maybe I should like actually do some of my own research, and look at actual scientific studies, and things of that nature.”

But really, ultimately, what that came down to for us was doing a food trial with Oso to determine, because of course he fits the exact uh picture of the kiddos who were not doing well on a grain free diet. He’s a large barrel-chested dog, and, and so we went on a food trial with him and learned, oh, no, he does actually do much better on a grain free diet because his allergies went absolutely haywire. His environmental allergies, I should say, went absolutely haywire when we switched him to a more conventional diet. And he was fine on the conventional diet until the environmental allergy season kicked in and, and, oh, it was rough pumpkins for everybody involved. 

[00:06:41] Emily: Yeah, I feel like I say nutrition is a study of one as often as I say behavior is a study of one because there are so many times when we’re talking with clients, or students And the question, a question about nutrition comes up and it’s like, well, should we feed this diet? Or, you know, I can’t believe this dog’s not doing well, even though they’re being fed raw or, you know, things like that. And it’s like, “Okay, well, hold on. We don’t actually know what is ideal for this individual.”

And that brings us to our next point, which is that not only is there not one true diet that’s the best diet for everyone, but we also need to consider how each individual body interacts with nutrients instead of just looking at the nutrients themselves.

So, there’s no such thing as good or bad food. Food exists. It is what it is. Um, it contains the nutrients it contains. What we need to pay attention to is how the individual body assimilates, metabolizes, and potentially reacts to those foods. Instead of saying this food blanket bad for everybody, this food blanket good for everybody. I read this one case study of this girl who was missing half of her heart, like, genetically, just half of her heart never developed. And her doctors and dietitians had done all of this work trying to figure out, you know, how to keep her alive and keep her thriving. And they found out for her, she needed to be on a really high fat, really high salt diet. So, they were like, fast food, fast food is the answer for you. 

So, when I say that there’s no such thing as intrinsically bad food, I really do mean that. There are foods that are more likely to cause disease in most individuals, and less likely to cause disease in others. But we really have to look at the individual and how they assimilate and metabolize and respond to those nutrients to decide whether or not those foods are ideal for that individual. So, you can’t map what works for one person, or one dog, or one bird, onto everybody else. 

So, it, to me, it reminds me of how when we’re thinking of behavior, and we’re just looking at the behavior itself without considering how the environment is, is set up, that is causing the behavior to happen or influencing the behavior in some way. Um, we’re missing a lot of the picture. And so, we’re likely to not meet some of those animals’ needs because we’re only looking at their behavior in a vacuum instead of looking at their behavior in the context of the environment that they’re operating in. And I feel like that’s a pretty good analogy for how people think about food. 

Because if you’re only thinking about the foods themselves and whether or not they’re kind of good, like morally good or bad, and not looking at how the body interacts with that food, likewise, we are likely to miss the mark in meeting that animal’s needs as best as we could. So, we really have to look at the interplay between the body, the learner, and the environment. The body and the food in order to assess where the magic is happening, like what’s actually going on. 

And that reminds me of, of, two stories that are in parallel, but kind of opposite. So, I’m going to talk about Brie again, because how often do I talk about Brie? All the time. But first I’m going to talk about a dog named Ruger, and I’m going to contrast Ruger with Brie. Because Ruger was a dog who had one of the most extreme cases of pica I have ever encountered. He had to be muzzled any time he was let outside because he would just compulsively eat everything, dirt, sand, rocks, like anything. It wasn’t just about eating objects. He just put everything in his mouth. And so, he had a really compromised quality of life and we were really struggling to improve his quality of life.

And so, we worked with, a veterinarian who was not a veterinary nutritionist, but, knew quite a bit about nutrition. And we were talking about different options, we were looking at the research that was available on pica, and for a lot of reasons I won’t go into, we decided to trial a raw diet and see how that went for him.

And he just started dropping weight. And he lost so much weight, it became kind of scary. Like he, he definitely looked underweight, and we kept increasing his food, and increasing his food, and increasing his food. And it did not matter how much raw food we fed him. This dog was, maybe 50 pounds, at a healthy weight. He was probably in the low thirties at this point, and we were feeding him them an amount of raw food for a ninety-pound dog, and he was still losing weight on, on that much food. 

And so, we decided to switch to a kind of sensitive stomach, prescription diet. So, kibble diet. And immediately he started gaining weight, his health, his coat got better, and also his behavior improved.

We were able to start expanding his world. So, I mean, he never stopped having pica even on medication, and with the improved gut, but it was, it got to the point where it’s manageable, and he could actually have a quality of life, and play with toys, and do food puzzles, and stuff without endangering himself.

That’s a really good example of how there’s not one true diet for every dog because this dog absolutely thrived on a sensitive tummy kibble. limited ingredient, whatever it was, uh, prescription diet. My dog Brie, on the other hand, she was a feral dog. I think everybody who listens to the podcast knows that about her.

And so, when she first started living with us and we tried to feed her a kibble diet, the kibble diet that Copper was thriving on, her body was like, I don’t, I don’t know what to do with this. What is extruded kibble? How, how do you metabolize this? I don’t know. And her body freaked out in multiple ways, freaked out.

So, we switched her to a home cooked diet, and she immediately thrived. All the chronic inflammatory stuff went away. She lost weight. She had a beautiful coat. So, for her, getting rid of kibble was a good thing. So, Ruger needed kibble to thrive. Brie needed to not be on kibble to thrive. So exact opposite diets, for these two dogs with very different bodies and very different needs.

And then, I feel like I have to say this because, it is something that we say all the time, but I, I also feel like we can never say it too much, before trialing different diets or different supplements to try to improve gut health. We need to figure out what our objective measures are. First of all, what are our goals? What are we seeing that makes us suspect that this animal has compromised gut health? 

Is It maladaptive behaviors like anxiety, or aggression, or something like that? Are we seeing, a coat, coat changes that aren’t for the better? Are we seeing chronic inflammatory responses? Is the dog a picky eater? Does the dog get upset stomachs? So, what are we seeing and what do we want to change? Right? We have to know that first instead of just thinking all animals need to be on a better diet.

What does that even look like? Or all animals have, you know, compromised gut health, so we have to change it. We have to know what we’re trying to change in order to actually know if we’ve done it, if we’ve actually succeeded. So, first of all, identify what are we trying to change, and then what does a desirable change look like, and how are we going to objectively measure that that change is actually happening 

[00:14:20] Allie: All right, so after we know what our goals are, then we can do the thing. We determine the goals that we want to achieve by performing that food trial, just like Emily was talking about. Determine the measures that you’ll use to figure out if the food trial is working the way that you hoped it would. Determine the diet you’ll be trialing with the help of your vet or a veterinary nutritionist, and then spend a few months tracking the effects. Because food trials can sometimes 

yield quick results, but oftentimes we see slow progression over time. So, for example, I mentioned that we did a food trial with Oso when the, apparently not when the study came out, but when the bluster about the study happened, which I swear was two years ago. 

[00:15:03] Emily: You are, you’re wrong. You’re wrong by a lot but it’s fine. We can all be wrong sometimes. 

[00:15:09] Allie: So even though we weren’t seeing any signs of heart disease on the grain free diet, you know, it’s one of those where it’s like, as he gets older, that would become a concern. Let’s do some preemptive work. Let’s see if we can continue to not see those signs on a conventional diet. And if we continue to have great mobility, if we continue to have formed stool if we continue to have, if we continue to have clear eyes, healthy skin, the same behaviors that we typically see from him, this happy go lucky kind of goofy guy. So, we changed his diet and we saw some changes in skin health.

He started getting more dandruff. His coat wasn’t as shiny and it was like, “Well, okay, not as good as, as we’d want it to be, but let’s ride this out a little bit longer.” And then, as I said, environmental allergy season happened. And he was the itchiest that he has been since we moved to this state. Just, oh, this poor kid was itching so much.

He was, there were sores and wounds. It was, it was all bad. And I’m going to spare y’all from that. So, we very quickly changed back to the grain free diet. We saw the skin health improve, a few weeks after switching back, we saw the allergies, not go away, that would be amazing, but go back to the normal level of itchiness that he had been. And one of the ways that we knew how itchy he was, was how much allergy medicine he needed at that time to maintain a not itchy life. 

So, I didn’t have to do like a three-month food trial to figure out, because of when allergy season happened, to figure out that the food, the conventional diet was not the thing for Oso. I found the information I was looking for, and then we were able to immediately go back to whatever it was that he needed. 

But I want you to keep in mind too that in addition to giving it time to track the effects, but also not just like letting your pet be itchy for the sake of an experiment, that’s not worth it. Also keep in mind that if you and your pet’s vet think that there might be a food allergy involved, that if they’re exposed to even a molecule of that allergen within like a three month trial, that it’ll mess up the results.

So that’s something that you’ll definitely want to work on with an expert because it can be really tricky to figure out food allergies by yourself. 

And an example of that is Ellen had a client who, who I don’t remember what the behavior issues were. I’m assuming some separation anxiety related behavior, but every month they were noticing a regression with this dog. And what they found out was that the heartworm prevention medicine was beef flavored and the beef flavoring in the heartworm prevention medicine was an allergen for this dog. And so, they saw a regression in the separation anxiety training every single month when he got his heartworm prevention medicine. So that’s an example of how it might be something that you don’t even think of as your pet ingesting.

[00:18:20] Emily: Yeah. I, um, I, had a client who had a dog with a lot of issues, you know, stranger danger, like, uh, human directed aggression and, um, a lot of different anxieties and, fears just in general. This was not a happy kiddo. And we were uh, we were looking at working with a VB, they had concerns because they had never heard of a VB before, and you know, money was a factor for them, and so we were trying to figure out how we could best support this animal while we were waiting to work with a VB.

On the initial intake form, we ask if the dog has any health conditions and they had said no. Because of how anxious this dog was, I always ask clients when I’m first meeting with them and they have an anxious dog, if they have any tummy troubles. And this was, actually, one of the cases that taught me how to ask this question in more detail and depth because I had asked them in kind of a general way. And they were like, “No, he doesn’t really have any tummy problems.” 

And, and they were in their head interpreting tummy problems as, as vomiting or diarrhea. They said, “No, that he doesn’t experience vomiting or diarrhea.”

And I was like, “Okay, cool.” 

So, we were working with this doggo, I think maybe the third or fourth time that I had a session with them, the dog started just hacking, and hacking as if he was about to vomit. When he finally spit something out, it was kind of foamy bile. 

I was like, “Does he do that often?” And they were like, “Oh, every morning he does that.”

And I was like, oh, okay. I need to get more specific when I ask clients about GI upset. And I was like, “Cool. Uh, take your dog to your vets because. That might be his normal, but that is not normal. And that may be a medical condition that we need to address.”

They went to the vet, and they talked to their vet about it, and the vet assessed that this dog had acid reflux. And so put him on a medication for, for acid reflux. And then they made an additional assessment after doing some, different tests, different diagnostic tests that the reason that he had acid reflux was because he had a gut flora imbalance and he had some bad bacteria that weren’t causing him to have some, like loose stools or anything that they would have interpreted as abnormal. But the diagnostics showed us that There was something wonky going on.

When they started treating that and the dog’s got stabilized, we didn’t even need a VB. And okay, I’m just going to say this. This is not true for everybody. I am not claiming that you just, you know, repair a dog’s gut, and then veterinary behaviors are no longer necessary. That’s not the point of this story, y’all. Don’t go there. But for this dog, he improved so much. I think he just felt nauseated all the time, and feeling better made him less anxious and, and less stressed. And then I’m sure also that improving his gut, gut health, increased the production of those lovely neurotransmitters that help us handle life.

But we were able to just, you know, use the tools that we had at our disposal to really help the client reach their goal and help their dog have a much better quality of life. And it was because I hadn’t asked them very specific questions. Are you seeing this specific, any of these symptoms and given a very specific list?

I learned from that case that I needed to be more clear in asking those questions because that was getting missed, and because of their interpretation of what gut health looked like. And, and as a result, when we were finally identified and addressed that issue, um, the dog improved by leaps and bounds.

[00:22:15] Allie: So, today we talked about trialing gut brain health with the pets in your life. And that includes first taking a look at how do you know what you know? Because nutrition is a study of one. And just like there is no one true diet, we need to consider how the body interacts with nutrients, not just nutrients themselves. Before trialing a different diet, figure out what your objective measures are, what your goals are, what you’re going to be trialing, and then spend a few months, maybe it won’t take that long, tracking the effects. Next week we’ll be talking with Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, Cooperative Care for All Species.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.

Thank you for listening and happy training.

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