Many say that the gut acts like a second brain. Within the digestive system of both humans and our pets, there lies a completely separate nervous system. Have you ever noticed that your pet tends to have an upset stomach after a stressful situation? Maybe you moved, added a new family member, or visited a veterinarian? All of a sudden, your pet is having explosive diarrhea and you are wondering, what happened? Recent studies are looking at the link between the nervous system and the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut, also called the gut microbiota. What if we could protect our pets from stress by understanding the balance of the bacteria in their digestive system? Researchers at Georgia State University are on a mission to find out.
What actually happens to the gut microbiota when your pet is in a stressful situation? Katherine Partrick, a PhD candidate in Neuroscience at Georgia State University, researches how social stress affects the health of our gut microbiome, more specifically the delicate balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria.
Researchers chose the common pet, Syrian hamsters, as their models for this study. These hamsters demonstrate a relevant model of social stress through their ritualistic territorial behavior. If you put two hamsters together, they will consistently develop a social hierarchy that results in a dominant and a submissive hamster. Once they establish this hierarchy, they maintain their roles in every situation in which they are placed together, simulating classic “bullying”. This behavior can be applied to many similar hierarchical interactions in other species because even if no physical injury occurs, there is a psychological stress between two individuals.
The results of the study were profound. Both the winner and loser hamster experienced negative changes in their gut microbiota. Good bacteria decreased, while potentially harmful bacteria increased. As of yet, this model has only been studied in hamsters, but what does this mean for both our pets and humans? To read the full paper, click here.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, GOOD BACTERIA?
Thus far, we have established that the bacteria in our gut play a key role in our overall health. We see major issues throughout the body systems if there is an imbalance in the gut. Veterinarians and physicians alike are beginning to recommend probiotics to patients to prevent these problems. Probiotics are a relatively new development in nutrition and their benefits are still being studied today. For more information on probiotics, click here.
CAN PROBIOTICS PREVENT STRESS-RELATED GASTROINTESTINAL ISSUES?
The jury is still out on this. Perhaps certain types of probiotics are more beneficial to prevent microbiome disturbances than others. In a study conducted at Purdue University on military working dogs in stressful situations, probiotics administration had no significant impact on stress-related diarrhea. However, other studies disagree, with evidence that suggests that chronic stress-related behavioral issues can be prevented using probiotics. It is clear that stress can impact the gut microbiota. The team at Georgia State University is now looking at whether specific bacteria can impact an animal’s response to stress. It is possible that the combination of probiotics and proper nutrition, thus fostering a healthy gut, might create more positive reactions to negative situations. This has not been fully studied, however, and thus there are no conclusions at this time.
HOW CAN I HELP MY PET IN STRESSFUL SITUATIONS?
The key take away from this study is that negative situations can drastically impact your pet’s gut health, specifically the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria. Although it is not clear whether we can prevent this disruption using something like a probiotic supplement, it is worth understanding the link between the digestive system and the brain. Keeping your pet healthy by maintaining a proper, well-balanced diet has the potential to directly benefit your pet’s life. Through proper nutrition, your pet will have a lower risk of obesity and thus a lower risk of obesity-associated diseases. Additionally, a daily probiotic daily could enable your pet to cope better with stress, leading to a happier, healthier life.
If this topic interests you, I encourage you to read the articles linked throughout this blog post. I look forward to the future of Katherine Partrick and her team at Georgia State University. Their endeavors to unlock the mysteries between bacteria and the brain will help both veterinarians and pet owners alike.
- An article with some more detailed information on the study performed at Georgia State University on hamsters.