By Dr. Becker
If you're confused by the difference between prebiotics and probiotics, you're not alone.
Prebiotics are billed as feeding only beneficial bugs in the gut, but research indicates they feed both good and bad microorganisms.
For Pets with GI Conditions, Prebiotics Are a Bad Idea
For a dog or cat with a very fit digestive tract, prebiotics probably won't do any harm. But many pets today have GI conditions like IBD, IBS, leaky gut, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and other issues. The good to bad bacteria ratio in their GI tract is out of whack, and the last thing we want to do is feed pathogenic bacteria with prebiotics.
That's why I always warn against prebiotics for pets with any type of gastrointestinal dysfunction.
Another confusing thing about prebiotics is they are commonly referred to as fiber because they are non-digestible. Prebiotics are actually complex sugars, and the most common source for them in inexpensive pet food is dried beet pulp. In better quality brands, they're often listed as fructo-oligosaccharide, chicory root, or garlic.
Since prebiotics are sugar and sugar feeds yeast and other opportunistic pathogens in the small intestine pets with yeasty guts can get much sicker from ingesting prebiotics.
The Quality of Probiotics is Key
Another distinction between pre- and probiotics is that prebiotics are commonly added to pet food, but probiotics can't be (or shouldn't be).
If you do happen to run across a pet food claiming to contain probiotics, I recommend you leave it right there on the shelf. Probiotics are sensitive to moisture and heat, so if they're added to a pet food formula – especially kibble – they will be long dead and virtually useless by the time they make it into your dog's or cat's digestive tract.
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.
High quality pet probiotics have some important things in common, including:
- The correct strains of bacteria beneficial for pets, not people
- Easy to give to your dog or cat
- The ability to survive the acidic environment of your pet's stomach
- Enough live organisms to colonize the intestines
- Product stability under normal storage conditions
The probiotic I use at my Natural Pet clinic and also at home is Mercola's Complete Probiotics for Pets. It meets all the standards I just listed, plus it's GMP certified.
Veterinary Probiotic Use Continues to Expand
Most of us who practice holistic and integrative veterinary medicine have known of the benefits of probiotics for decades.
But because probiotics are a supplement rather than a drug, the traditional veterinary community and those it serves have been slow to incorporate it into pet health care protocols.
Fortunately, things are changing for the better. An increasing number of traditional vets, pet owners and caretakers are using probiotics to:
- Treat diarrhea
- Help cats and dogs in shelters manage the stress of abandonment and confinement
- Alleviate GI upset while pets are being boarded
- Reseed the gut with beneficial bacteria after a round of antibiotics
- Calm digestive upsets caused by travel and dietary changes
- Improve digestion and stool quality in large and giant breed dogs
- Boost immune system function, especially in pets that are very young, elderly, or have compromised health
According to Dr. Amy Dicke, technical services veterinarian for P&G PetCare:
"Kittens' and puppies' intestinal bacterial balance begins forming when their mom licks them. The bacteria accumulated in the first couple of weeks of an animal's life can ultimately affect their long-term bacteria colonization. When animals are orphaned or even when they have loose stools, a probiotic can help remedy the situation."
Another encouraging sign is a greater focus by new vet school grads on preventing illness, and the importance of nutrition and digestion in keeping pets healthy.
Now that the use of probiotics to support digestion and immune function is growing in acceptance, the traditional veterinary community is more willing to consider other types of conditions that respond to probiotics. For example in humans, research suggests that asthma and other immune-related disturbances may be reduced with probiotic use.
A Word of Caution
It's much healthier for your pet if you feed natural, whole food as part of a balanced, species-appropriate diet rather than a commercial pet food formula with a laundry list of 'extras' like added prebiotics.
Joseph Wakshlag, DVM and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in New York points out that:
"… some manufacturers throw everything but the kitchen sink in their products and pet owners may think that makes it a good food when it doesn't. Manufacturers sometimes have ingredients in their foods that naturally contain prebiotics, but they add more like fructooligosaccharides and mannanoligosaccharides because owners are looking for that on the ingredients list."
Your dog or cat should receive the bulk of his nutrients from a good quality diet.
With the basics in place, you can then consult your holistic vet about beneficial supplements for the individual needs of your furry companion.