Chew toy? Check. Favorite blanket? Check. Vet-approved carrier, meds, and anti-plaque treats? Check, check, and check. You're ready to hit the road, and you're taking your favorite traveling companion with you.
Just one thing…have you thought about their gut?
Chances are, the last time you really thought about your pet's gut was when your dog swallowed something they shouldn't have (again) or when Miss Kitty had that unfortunate run of tummy issues. But your pet's gut actually plays a huge role in their overall health and happiness.
Just like humans, pets have a whole ecosystem of bacteria living within and on them called the microbiome. (Don't let your associations of bacteria as being dirty or dangerous throw you; the majority of these bacteria are beneficial to the body.) The microbiome of the gut is particularly important: it's closely connected to their health, supporting everything from optimal immune function and better nutrient absorption to improved joint health. In fact, the more balanced your pet's microbiome is, the better their overall health is likely to be.1,2
Here's the thing: while the gut microbiome is incredibly powerful, and has far-reaching effects throughout the body, it can also get out of whack relatively easily. Exposure to several really common things, including stress, antibiotics in food or medicine, chemicals your pets might run across outside, or even strong soaps can throw off the balance between good and bad bacteria in your pet's gut.
When this happens, those inhospitable bacteria can grow out of control, leading to things like temporary gas or diarrhea, changes in the immune system, lethargy, behavior issues, tons of stress, or itchy skin.3
Gut Health Becomes Even More Important During Times of Change or Stress, Like Travel.
As you already know, your pet is likely to need a little extra support when they're going through big changes or stressors, and that includes travel. Even if your pet travels really well, the simple fact of being in a different place or getting out of their normal routine can throw them off.
The good news is, it's really easy to support your pet's microbiome. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so ideally, your pet’s gut health should be a daily focus, rather than something you just pick up when you're traveling.
One really easy first step you can take is understanding some of the common reasons that your pet's microbiome can become unbalanced in the first place, including:
• Taking antibiotics in medicine or as part of their food
• Eating inappropriate foods (no more table scraps or trash can runs!)
• Parasites from prey
• Exposure to chemicals in water
Stress can play a big role in the health of the microbiome too, as can exposure to environmental contaminants such as weed killers as pesticide sprays, which is something to be especially aware of if you have outdoor (or even indoor/outdoor) pets.
Once You Know What to Look out for, You Can Get Proactive.
Start with the basics: make sure they're getting enough water, because hydration is key for so much of the body to function well. Likewise, feed them as natural of a diet as you can, making sure that it's appropriate for their breed, age, and activity level. Just like with humans, it's generally better to go with a balanced diet of minimally-processed foods.
If you can work in some pet-friendly prebiotic foods (those that foster the growth of beneficial bacteria in the microbiome, like oats, carrots, or apples), so much the better. The best way to make sure that you're covering all those bases is to supplement your pets' diet with a probiotic formula like PRO-Pets. It's specifically designed for dogs and cats, with six probiotic strains to make sure that their gut is getting a consistent infusion of friendly bacteria.
And, as you might have guessed, it's always great to make sure that your pet is getting enough exercise, since regular movement is a great way to support the health of the microbiome. Plus, since your pets are almost certainly getting some of their movement outside (hopefully in a pesticide-free space), you're allowing them exposure to different types of bacteria. This is a good thing; the more diverse the microbiome is, the better their health tends to be.
Finally, do what you can to minimize your pet's stress. While the specifics of this are going to look different from pet to pet (after all, they have their own personalities and likes and dislikes, just like us), get to know your pet's psychology and the way that their breed generally acts so that you can get an idea of the type of socialization, training, and routine they need to be at their happiest.
The good thing is, stress and your pet’s gut microbiome go hand in hand: the more balanced your pet's microbiome is, the lower their stress levels are likely to be, and vice versa.
What Can You Do While You're Actually Traveling?
Everything changes when you're actually traveling––but there are still a lot of things you can do to keep your pet's gut, and by extension, their overall health, optimal while you're traveling together.
• Recognize that change is likely inherently stressful for your pet, so do what you can to bring some familiarity and routine to your travel, whether that's bringing along their bed or making sure they have their favorite toys. If they're on a feeding schedule at home, do your best to stick with it while you're traveling.
• Make sure that they have plenty to drink (they may run through their normal water faster while traveling), and pack enough food so that you don't have to worry about running out if there's a delay.
• Give them ample time to run around: this will help keep their mood and behavior on an even keel, and hopefully tire them out so they can rest when you're actually on the move.
• Make it a point to give them any medications and supplements on a consistent basis.
• If you're going to be taking them on a really big trip, particularly on a flight, then do what you can to minimize the time they have to spend cooped up (consider flying direct, if you can), and help them keep calm by making sure they know you're there. For instance, while you can't take an animal out of its carrier on a flight, you should be able to stick your fingers in for a head scratch or two, and putting in an old T-shirt that smells like you can be really comforting to them.
Finally, always check in with their vet before they travel, and never medicate them by yourself. If your pet really needs to be sedated for the flight (and there's a lot of debate about whether that's truly necessary), only a vet should do it.
What About When You're Traveling, But They're Staying at Home?
A lot of the same things apply if you're traveling but need to leave your furry friend at home. Making sure they have enough food and water is key, as is ensuring that they have enough toys to play with so they don't get stressed out and anxious. If you can, have someone stop by to check in on them, but make sure they know not to feed your pets non-gut-friendly foods. Even though they might be well-intentioned, you don't want your visitors putting unnecessary stress on your pet's gut.
If you're boarding, then make sure you check out the boarding facility in advance, and talk to the staff about your pets' needs and preferences. Most places should follow your requests for play and supplements, so pack toys, blankets, bedding, food, and any medications that your pet is taking. While many boarding facilities are great, you do really want to make sure that your pet's immunity (which is largely located in the gut) is fully supported during this time of change and exposure to other animals, so make sure you pack a probiotic supplement.
It's All Pretty Simple…And So Very Worth It
Pets bring so much to our lives, from companionship and improved health to pure, unconditional love and joy, and there are so many easy things you can do to return the favor and keep them healthy and happy.4 With a little planning and awareness of what's important for your pet’s health, and particularly their gut health, you can make sure that your favorite travel companion is healthy and living their happiest days, either by your side or eagerly awaiting your return.
1. Strompfová, V., Simonová, M. P., Gancarčíková, S., Mudroňová, D., Farbáková, J., Mad'ari, A., & Lauková, A. (2014). Effect of Bifidobacterium animalis B/12 administration in healthy dogs. Anaerobe, 28, 37-43.
2. Li, Q., Lauber, C. L., Czarnecki-Maulden, G., Pan, Y., & Hannah, S. S. (2017). Effects of the Dietary Protein and Carbohydrate Ratio on Gut Microbiomes in Dogs of Different Body Conditions. MBio,8(1). doi:10.1128/mbio.01703-16
3. Kelley, R.L., Minikhiem, D., Kiely, B., O'Mahony, L., O'Sullivan, D., Boileau, T., Park, J.S. (2009). Clinical benefits of probiotic canine-derived Bifidobacterium animalis strain AHC7 in dogs with acute idiopathic diarrhea. Veterinary Therapeutics: Research in Applied Veterinary Medicine, 10(3), 120-130.
4. Azad, M.B. Konya, T., Maughan, H., Guttman, D.S., Field, C.J. . . . Kozyrskyj, A.L. (2013) Infant Gut Microbiota and the Hygiene Hypothesis of Allergic Disease: Impact of Household Pets and Siblings on Microbiota Composition and Diversity. Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology 9(15) doi: 10.1186/1710-1492-9-15
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.