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The Emerging Science of Dirt for Dogs

Published May 6, 2022
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A lot of us don’t spend much time thinking about dirt. And if you have a dog, you may not like the idea of dirt and dogs together. It could mean dirty paws, which might mean a dirty house…and bath time.

Admittedly, mopping up after your dirty dog doesn’t sound fun. But the payoff could well be worth it: there is emerging science suggesting that direct contact with healthy soil may not only be beneficial for our health, but for dogs too.

What’s so beneficial about it? Microbes.

What are microbes?

Microbes are tiny living organisms that can’t be seen by the naked eye, but they’re everywhere. They live all around us, on us, and inside us. Everyone, including our dogs, has a unique microbiome that can be affected by environment, diet, and other factors.

However, a person and their pup(s) do share similar microbial populations. They can be so similar that researchers could likely pick your dog out of a crowd based on microbiomes. It makes sense, as our lives are so intertwined.

Why are they so important?

Many of these microbes are beneficial for us. They help fight off germs, digest our food, and keep our skin healthy. And research is beginning to show that exposure to microbes found in dirt may reduce asthma, allergies, and also boost our immune system. In one study, young children who spent time outside on the farm had lower rates of asthma and allergies than their urban neighbors. Those children naturally live in a place teeming with microbes – microbes that our immune system evolved with and benefit from.

As research grows of the benefits for people, there is developing research for dogs. Steve Brown, a canine nutrition expert, also launched the Canine Healthy Soil Project. Similar to research that focused on young farm children, Brown’s hypothesis states that a dog’s exposure to healthy soil (especially as a puppy) can help restore a dog’s ancestral microbiota and enhance their overall health.

In a Wag Out Loud podcast episode, Brown explains that long ago, dogs used to be born outside, with easy access to soil. However, nowadays many dogs are bred indoors (where it’s sterile), with little access to dirt. And with our modern lifestyles, a dog’s microbiota (and ours) may be negatively impacted by this lack of access to these beneficial microbes.

If a dog is provided time on rich, healthy soil, they can gain exposure to these beneficial microbes. And while every dog’s microbiome is different, there are so many microbes found in healthy soil (in the billions), that each dog can be exposed to the microbes most beneficial to them.

Can my dog roam in any kind on soil?

Unfortunately, dogs and people cannot benefit from walking on any kind of soil. Much of the soil today can be affected by fertilizers, chemicals, and agricultural practices that deplete the soil. Brown and other researchers are working on microbiome support products that may help improve our dogs’ microbiome, without the need to search for healthy soil.

If you do have access to some land, you can check to see if your soil is healthy. Here are some markers that indicate healthy soil:

  • Soil color: Generally the darker the soil, the higher organic matter content
  • Soil rich in life: healthy soil is filled with earthworms, bacteria, fungi, and beetles
  • Soil smell: Good soil generally smells earthy. Soil absent of oxygen may smell like rotten eggs or sulfur

If you’ve got healthy soil, consider giving your pup (and yourself) a chunk of time to roam in some good ol’ dirt. Your microbiome will love you for it.

Some takeaways

The science of microbes and its impacts on humans and dogs is in its early days, but the research so far is exciting. These findings could blaze the way for new soil-microbe-based medicine that can help our boost our overall health.

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