The gut microbiome—the collection of microbes that live in the digestive tract—is key to health and wellness. And the health of the mouth affects gut health. The oral microbiome plays important roles in protecting our pets from pathogens found in food or in the air. But when bacteria from the mouth migrate farther “downstream,” they can alter the microbiome of the gut, potentially causing imbalances that lead to inflammation and disease.
The mouth and its microbiome
As the body’s entrance for air and the beginning of the digestive tract, the mouth plays an important role in the immune system. And like the gut, the mouth has its own microbiome—a rich community of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms. When the mouth encounters bacteria or viruses from the outside environment, the oral microbiome helps to prevent the foreign organisms from settling in, partly by outnumbering the invaders.
Saliva also plays an important role, washing away food particles, neutralizing acids produced by bacteria, protecting against foreign microbes, and preventing unhealthy bacterial overgrowth.
Just as a healthy gut depends on a balance among its resident microorganisms, the oral microbiome has to be in balance in order to support the body’s immune system effectively. If populations of certain bacteria in the mouth grow too large—as a result of inadequate oral hygiene, for instance—they can cause tooth decay and gum disease.
How does oral health affect gut health?
Organisms that live harmoniously in one part of the body can cause trouble when they’re relocated to another part. When bacteria that belong in the mouth migrate to the gut (traveling along with the saliva that gets swallowed), they can disrupt the gut microbiome and cause immune responses that may lead to disease.
In humans, oral bacteria and the inflammation associated with severe gum disease (periodontitis) are known to play a role in many diseases of the rest of the body. Studies have shown that imbalances in the oral microbiome can cause bronchitis, pneumonia, diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.
When researchers looked at the gut microbiomes of people with IBD, for example, they found microbes that normally reside in the mouth: two strains of a particular oral bacterium called Klebsiella were shown to trigger the immune responses associated with Crohn’s disease and colitis.
If your dog or cat shows any of these signs of possible oral disease, make an appointment with your veterinarian:
Teeth that are discolored or covered in tartar
Drooling or dropping food out of the mouth
Bleeding from the mouth
Shying away from being touched in the mouth area
Loss of appetite
Since an overgrowth of bacteria in the mouth can cause changes in the gut microbiome and lead to chronic problems such as IBD, it’s important to keep your dog’s or cat’s teeth and gums as healthy as possible.
Veterinarians recommend preventing the buildup of plaque and bacteria by brushing your pet’s teeth regularly. That may not sound easy, but toothbrushes designed specifically for dogs and cats are widely available, and your veterinarian can show you the proper technique. (Hint: Never use human toothpaste!) A safe chew can also benefit your pet’s teeth while providing a treat.
More tips: Wash your hands thoroughly after brushing your pet’s teeth, rinse the toothbrush thoroughly, replace the toothbrush every three months, and if you have several pets, use a different toothbrush for each one.
In addition, your veterinarian may recommend professional cleanings every 6–12 months.
Overall pet health
A good way to check on your pet’s overall health is to use our gut health microbiome test kits for your dog or cat. With a small sample from your pet, we can detect the types and proportions of bacteria living in your pet’s gut, suggest ways to improve gut health, and provide a detailed report on your pet’s gut bacteria. You’ll also get access to our online dashboard, where you can compare your results with the results from healthy pets in our database.