Pets & Our Microbiome

by Angela Halderson

None of us will forget last year. Covid and quarantines brought so much change to everyone’s life, and if you are like most people, your family grew. From Washington D.C. to L.A., dog adoptions increased dramatically. Owning a dog brings extra love into our life. They help us keep our weight in check with daily walks, and many of us can attest to how pets help improve our mental health. But did you know owning a dog can be beneficial to your gut microbiome?

Our microbiome consists of trillions of beneficial and opportunistic bacteria residing in our small and large intestine and on our skin. These healthy “bugs” help us break down food and medications, create vitamins, keep bad bacteria in check, and interact with our immune system. Our “biome” is negatively affected by stress, food sensitivities, prescription medication (antibiotics, NSAIDs) and the Standard American Diet. Our biome can be strengthened and kept healthy with stress management, a high fiber diet, probiotics, and pets!  

Researchers have learned that infants living with pets have a greater microbiome diversity than infants living without pets. A more diverse microbiome can mean fewer allergies and less risk of developing asthma.  

Think about it. Dogs sniff poo. Dogs sniff dead things. Dogs eat questionable things. They love to roll and play in the mud. In doing so, they collect countless microorganisms. They share those organisms with us when we pet, cuddle, or kiss them. In turn, these microorganisms help activate our immune system response, which increases our immunity against allergens like pollen. 

Seasonal allergies or asthma are examples of an oversensitive immune system attacking something (pollen) it should not attack. This overdramatic immune response can result in itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing, hives, trouble breathing, or even anaphylaxis. In our ever clean and sanitary environment (overuse of hand sanitizer, use of harsh cleaning products, antibacterial soaps, or being born by cesarean section), people are over cleaning and killing too many microbes. Living in an over-clean environment resets your immune system to accept a lower threshold to allergens. Think of it this way:  we teach our children to be friendly and openly greet each other to make new friends. The more friends we have, the happier we are. When we introduce our bodies to different microorganisms, the more accepting our immune system becomes. As a result, less allergies, and a diverse microbiome. 

Living in a pet free home? No worries, you can still diversify your microbiome. Start by eating fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, buttermilk, or sauerkraut. These are great natural sources of probiotics, or what we call friendly bacteria that make up our microbiome.  Probiotics are a blend of bacteria and yeasts that naturally live in our body and help us stay well. If fermented foods are not appealing to you, I would encourage a daily multi-strain probiotic supplement. The most common types of probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium while Saccharomyces boulardii is a common beneficial yeast. Purchase quality probiotics that are free of food dyes, fillers, soy, gluten, and are non-GMO.

Finally, follow up your probiotics with fiber! Fiber feeds probiotics so they want to stay in the body and multiply. Most Americans don’t eat the daily recommended intake of fiber (about 30 grams). Some fiber-rich foods to enjoy are nuts, berries, peas, beans, and green vegetables. Load up!