Veterinarians are starting to use beneficial bacteria not only to treat their patients with gastrointestinal disorders, but also as immune system support for puppies, kittens and aging pets.
According to Amy Dicke, technical services veterinarian for P&G Pet Care:
"Sixty to 80 percent of the body’s immune system lies in the digestive tract. This means the GI function has influence on the immune system and how it reacts. A healthy GI tract will help an animal fight disease, so keeping this balance of healthy bacteria alive is an important part of overall wellness."
"Research isn’t readily available to support every potential use of probiotics in animals, but veterinarians should remain open to benefits outside of a diarrhea remedy," says Susan Wynn, DVM, of Georgia Veterinary Specialists. "Clients will continue to demand probiotics and the industry will continue to find ways to use them."
As you’re aware if you read the full article at the link, mainstream veterinarians and major pet food manufacturers are getting into the probiotics business in a big way.
That’s both good and bad news, from my perspective.
I’m happy to see more attention paid to the enormous benefits probiotics can provide to the health and well-being of companion animals.
However, I’m concerned pet food companies will use the growing interest in probiotics by pet owners and veterinarians to create food formulas containing substandard, essentially useless probiotic additives. Then, of course, their marketing people will get busy positioning these ‘new-and-improved’ formulas in such a way that consumers will believe they are providing high quality probiotics conveniently contained in the food they serve their dog or cat.
It’s troubling to know that some of the very pet food giants responsible for the poorest quality diets available – formulas that have largely contributed to the compromised health of millions of companion animals -- are the same ones now leading the industry’s charge to get probiotics-related pet products to market.
A Short Primer on Probiotics
Probiotics are ‘friendly’ strains of bacteria that maintain healthy levels of good bacteria in your pet’s GI tract, and also defend against opportunistic, potentially pathogenic (bad) bacteria.
The digestive tract is the largest immune organ in your pet’s body, and yours. Believe it or not, your dog or cat has even more intestinal bacteria than you do, despite her much smaller size. The GI tracts of companion animals are designed to handle a tremendous bacterial load – bacteria that would quite likely develop into a life-threatening infection if found elsewhere in your dog’s or cat’s body.
A healthy population of friendly bacteria keeps your pet’s immune system in good working order. If the balance of bad-to-good intestinal bugs gets out of whack, your dog or cat will eventually develop GI symptoms and an increased susceptibility to illness.
Studies demonstrate animals raised without friendly bacteria in the gut, or with a poor balance of good-to-bad gut bacteria, are at dramatically increased risk of developing disease.
Why a Healthy Balance of Gut Bacteria is Important
When your dog’s or cat’s gastrointestinal bacteria are in balance with the right amount and type of healthy bugs on board, there is symbiosis. Good things happen inside your pet’s body. For example:
- Vitamins are made
- Vegetable fiber is processed as it should be
- Unfriendly bacteria are kept in check
- Toxins are well-managed
When unfriendly, pathogenic bacteria take over your pet’s digestive system, it creates dysbiosis, which is more or less the opposite of symbiosis.
Dysbiosis results in increased permeability – leakiness -- of the intestinal wall, which means your pet’s GI tract will be less able to allow healthy bacteria and nutrients in and keep disease-causing bacteria out.
A healthy GI tract is selective about what is absorbed. Nutrients are taken in and non-nutritive substances, including toxins, are filtered out.
Exciting Recent Study Results
Back to the good news-bad news department -- up until major pet food manufacturers took an interest in probiotics, there was very little research into the ways in which supplementation could improve the health of dogs and cats.
Now that pet food companies have discovered a lucrative market in probiotic products, it’s a very safe bet much more funding for research will be made available.
Study results will benefit pet food producers, of course, but they will also help veterinarians, pet owners and others concerned with the health of dogs and cats learn more about the uses and promise of probiotic supplementation.
A few examples of recent research:
- Studies were conducted to determine the benefits of the probiotic strain Enterococcus faecium (E. faecium) – also known as the ‘poop strain.’ Puppies that received this strain had increased levels of the friendly bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, and improved fecal quality.
They also maintained their vaccination titers longer and had higher levels of fecal secretory IgA, an important antibody produced in the lining of the intestine that protects against bacteria and viruses. The higher fecal IgA result was also seen in elderly dogs fed E. faecium, as well as kittens. Kittens and adult cats showed decreased incidence and duration of naturally occurring diarrhea and improved good-to-bad gut bacteria ratios.
- In another study of the benefits of E. faecium involving 11 healthy dogs, not only was their fecal microflora improved, but so were serum lipids. Eight of the 11 dogs given the probiotic supplement showed a decrease in total lipids and normalized cholesterol levels.
- In a study of the effects of strain L. acidophilus on healthy adult cats, the probiotic altered the balance of GI microflora and in addition, resulted in beneficial systemic and immunomodulatory effects.
- In this study, conducted by a veterinarian to test a pet probiotic manufacturer’s claims of help for cats with renal failure, results showed the supplement decreased creatinine levels in six of seven cats and improved their health and vitality. This probiotic contained a mixture of three strains: Streptococus thermophilus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Bifidobacterium longum.
The Pet Probiotic I Use and Recommend
Two things I don’t recommend are 1) using human probiotics on dogs and cats, and 2) using processed pet foods with probiotic additives.
Probiotic formulas used by humans were developed specifically to fortify the bacterial species found in the human GI tract. Pets have specific strains of bacteria unique to them, so they need a unique probiotic. Your dog or cat must have organisms derived from its own species for best results. You probably won’t harm your pet by offering human probiotics, but you aren’t providing as much benefit as you would be by offering a species-appropriate product.
The bacteria in a probiotic must be live and able to reproduce in order for it to be beneficial. Tests on dog foods claiming to contain probiotic micro-organisms showed the manufacturing process kills too many of the live bacteria, rendering the probiotic effect useless by the time the food is packaged and shipped.
A pet probiotic should have the following qualities:
- It must not cause disease (despite the fact it contains bacteria)
- It must survive the acidic environment of your pet’s stomach
- It must contain enough live organisms to colonize the intestines
- It must contain the correct strains of bacteria beneficial for pets, not people
- It should remain stable under normal storage conditions
- It should be easy to give to your dog or cat