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Most of us understand the primary functions of the gastrointestinal tract. Food is digested, nutrients are absorbed, and waste is eliminated. If this process isn't humming along like a well-oiled machine, your dog's ability to perform at his best is going to be compromised.

Growing scientific evidence suggests that the relationship of gut health to overall physical and emotional health is more significant than previously suspected. "It's become a huge topic of research, both in the veterinary space and in the human space," says Dr. Kurt Venator, chief veterinary officer for Purina. "With specific respect to dogs, though, there are two main areas of focus. One is the discovery that 70 percent of a dog's immune system is located in the GI tract, which obviously has huge implications for immune health and overall biology."

"The other is that we now know there's two-way communication between the brain and the gut, and between the gut and the brain," Venator continues. "By influencing one, you can impact the other. For example, we've found that simply by adjusting the microflora in the gut, we can reduce anxiety and the symptoms of stress in dogs."

Maintaining good gut health in our hard-working hunting dogs is even more important than we thought. This brings the use of probiotic supplements into the picture.

"There are millions of bacteria living in a dog's gut-good bacteria as well as bad bacteria," Venator explains. "As long as you maintain the proper balance, everything's fine. It's when things get out of whack that you start to see diarrhea, loose stools, gastroenteritis, and malabsorption. There may also be less obvious, subclinical changes that are reflected in the dog's performance and energy level. The condition of the skin and coat can sometimes suffer as well."

Before you consider the use of supplements, though, Venator is emphatic that you should be feeding your dog a high-quality diet that provides everything he needs in terms of fat, protein, minerals, and vitamins.

"That's the foundation of sporting dog health," he says. "Then, depending on the environment, the workload, and the individual dog, you can decide whether or not a supplement is appropriate. There are any number of stressors that can throw that microflora balance off-antibiotic therapy, working out hard, engaging with other dogs, travel, age, dietary indiscretions. If your dog is subject to one or more of these, he can probably benefit from a probiotic supplement."

Not all probiotics are created equal, though. In choosing one, Venator cites three things that you need to determine. The first and foremost is that the product is safe. The second is that it's stable, meaning that the live organisms are viable and therefore in a position to colonize the gut. The third is that it's effective.

While many sporting dog owners use a probiotic supplement situationally when they're hunting or competing, Venator recommends using it continuously for the duration of the season, whatever the parameters of your season happen to be. And even if your dog does develop diarrhea or some other gastrointestinal issue, his probiotic-strengthened immune system will typically help him recover more quickly.

"A probiotic supplement isn't a magic bullet," Venator acknowledges. "It can't prevent your dog from getting sick. But, by augmenting the immune response and promoting overall gut health, it can serve as a buffer against some of the stressors he's likely to encounter in the field. This makes it something that sporting dog owners should strongly consider adding to their toolbox."