Wondering what goes on when your dog digests food? There’s a lot more to it than just eating and pooping. As with any mammal, canine food digestion involves a number of steps that rely on a healthy digestive system.

What Is Digestion?

Digestion is the process by which food is broken down into its simplest form. The food your pup eats contains nutrients, which provide energy and other materials to keep them healthy and happy. Digestion allows a dog’s body to absorb and use those nutrients to full effect, and dispose of waste (hopefully not on the living room carpet!).

There are three main types of nutrients that dogs digest: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. While secondary nutrients like water, minerals, and vitamins don’t change much when they’re absorbed, they may need to be released from carbohydrates, fats, or proteins first.

In dogs and other mammals, digestion occurs in the digestive tract, otherwise known as the alimentary (maybe use ‘gastrointestinal’) tract, or simply the “gut.” It’s easy to assume that this just means the stomach, but the digestive tract actually includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, liver, pancreas, rectum, and anus. Read on to find out what role each of these plays in the digestions process.

The Stages of Digestion

You might think digestion begins in the stomach, but it actually starts in the mouth when your dog is chewing their food. (In the case of some more, ahem, enthusiastic dogs this might involve less chewing and more swallowing whole, so it’s a good idea to make sure your dog isn’t eating anything with pieces that are too large.)

As its being swallowed, your dog’s food will pass through the esophagus, reaching the stomach in a matter of seconds. Protein digestion begins here, with the aid of enzymes called proteases, as well as hydrochloric acid and mucus. How much of these are secreted depends on what kind of and how much food your dog has eaten.

Once the contents of the stomach are mixed into chyme (a semi-fluid mass of partially digested food and digestive secretions), they push toward the pyloric sphincter, which relaxes and lets food pass into the small intestine.

The first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum, does a lot of heavy digestive lifting. Enzymes from the pancreas and intestinal wall join the chyme, and then help with protein, carbohydrate, and fat digestion.

When your dog’s food has been broken down enough, it’s absorbed through the intestinal wall and into the blood. Once in the bloodstream, the absorbed nutrients will be carried to the liver for further metabolism. The digestive leftovers are then carried to the large intestine.

By the time the digest reaches the large intestine, the majority of the nutrients will have been digested and absorbed. The large intestine is responsible for water absorption and fermentation of dietary fiber by bacteria, which in turn produces gas — and often, farts!

The final stage of digestion is — you guessed it — pooping. After the feces leaves the large intestine, it’s stored in the rectum and expelled through the anus. Healthy canine poop is generally about 60-70% water, as well as undigested food, dead bacteria, and inorganic material.

How To Keep Your Dog’s Digestive System Healthy

Digestion issues are common among dogs. According to Dr. Jan Suchodolski, Associate Professor and Associate Director for Microbiome Sciences of the Gastrointestinal Laboratory at Texas A&M University, gastrointestinal disease is responsible for about one in 10 visits to the vet.

Keep an eye on your pup’s poop, as abnormal feces could be an indication of a larger GI problem. If you notice your dog has diarrhea or is constipated for more than a few days, take them to the vet to be examined.

It’s also important to make sure your pup is getting the right food. While an over-the-counter formula may be perfectly fine for your dog, a personalized nutrition plan like the ones offered by Puppo might be better for them if they have a sensitive stomach. If you think your pooch might need a personalized plan to suit their dietary needs, Puppo can work with you to find the perfect formula for your dog.