The Pros and Cons of Pet Probiotics

Dog eating from bowl
Angela Hampton, Alamy
Sometimes dogs and cats are given probiotics before or during an abrupt diet change.

Everywhere you turn, it seems, celebrities are hawking the health benefits of probiotics. But is it just hype, or do probiotics really work? And if they’re good for you, could they help your pet?

Simply put, probiotics are live microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeasts, which can provide health benefits when administered in appropriate amounts. In human medicine, there is evidence that probiotics may be helpful in the treatment of diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal infections. 

Although veterinary studies are limited, in practice, these microorganisms have proven beneficial for some pets with acute or chronic diarrhea but may be useful in other diseases. Though a study in puppies showed that certain probiotics may help the immune system respond to vaccines, probiotics are generally used for gastrointestinal problems in pets. 

How Probiotics Work

The normal GI tract contains a balance of “good” and potentially “bad” bacteria, which help maintain a healthy gastrointestinal system. Stressful situations, such as boarding or traveling, abrupt diet changes, dietary indiscretion, antibiotics, parasites or other factors can deplete the balance of beneficial bacteria. When that happens, harmful bacteria can take over, often resulting in diarrhea.

Probiotics can help restore the balance by boosting the amount of good bacteria and helping control the quantity of harmful bacteria. They do this by helping good bacteria compete with bad bacteria for nutrients and intestinal binding sites, and helping the immune system fight off pathogens. Once the natural bacterial balance is restored, stools usually return to normal.

Sometimes dogs and cats are given probiotics preemptively, such as before boarding or during a diet change, to help prevent a bacterial imbalance. In most cases, probiotics are administered after the onset of diarrhea and discontinued once the issue is resolved. Probiotics may also be recommended for dogs and cats with inflammatory bowel disease, food allergies or food reactions that may result in periodic bacterial imbalances.

All Probiotics Are Not the Same

How do you determine which probiotics are right for your pet? Some researchers believe that probiotics should be derived from the species in which they will be used. In other words, pets should be given probiotics isolated only from dog and cat digestive systems. But products containing human-derived bacteria have been shown to have beneficial effects in animals as well.

Common probiotic bacteria that may be beneficial to pets include strains of Lactobacillus, Enterococcus and Bifidobacteria. Still, it’s not always as easy as finding a product that contains those bacteria. Probiotics are not well regulated and may not contain the organisms listed on the label or actual live organisms, which are required to cultivate healthy GI microflora. Some may also not contain adequate amounts of the necessary bacteria or may contain other organisms not on the label.

That’s why it’s best to ask your veterinarian to recommend a probiotic she trusts. Most veterinary probiotics are backed by studies that prove they are effective and well tolerated in dogs and cats. Some products may also include a microemulsion to help the bacteria survive the acidic environment in the pet’s stomach and reach the remainder of the intestinal tract.

If your pet is experiencing acute or chronic diarrhea, talk to your veterinarian before administering any products, including a probiotic. Not every pet needs probiotics, and for those who do, it may not be the only treatment your pet requires. If you want to know more, talk to your veterinarian to see if a probiotic may be right for your furry friend.

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