By Dr. Becker
Probiotics are living microorganisms or gut friendly bacteria. They were discovered in the early 1900’s by Russian Nobel Laureate Elie Metchnikoff. Metchnikoff became aware that people living in rural areas who consumed fermented milk on a regular basis lived long lives, and he attributed it to the Lactobacillus organism found in milk. Metchnikoff began advising people to use fermented milk to decrease pH levels in the GI tract and suppress growth of harmful gut bacteria.
Holistic vets have been recommending probiotics for pets for decades, but the good news is that traditional veterinarians are becoming more aware of their benefits as well, and many DVMs now routinely recommend probiotic supplementation for patients with diarrhea, and those receiving antibiotic therapy.
Probiotics Are Proving Beneficial in a Wide Variety of Diseases and Disorders
According to Dr. Marcella Ridgway, writing for Clinician’s Brief, “Initial investigation of clinical efficacy of probiotic use in disease prevention and treatment in veterinary medicine is promising but preliminary.”
While there isn’t sufficient evidence yet to formally support specific health claims for probiotics, pretty much everyone now agrees they improve GI health and immune system function. And a growing body of research suggests probiotics can have therapeutic benefits for a wide range of health conditions, including chronic GI malfunction, allergies, diabetes, obesity, liver disease, and mood and behavior disorders.
Human studies suggest that probiotics may:
Improve glucose tolerance Improve outcomes in ICU patients Support weight loss efforts Reduce inflammation Alleviate the occurrence or symptoms of atopic dermatitis Relieve diarrhea as a symptom of certain disorders Provide benefits to people with liver disease Decrease respiratory infections in children in daycare settings Improve symptom management in inflammatory bowel disease Reduce cavities in children and the incidence of severe gum disease in adults Decrease lipid levels in people with high cholesterol
In studies of dogs and cats with acute or chronic unexplained diarrhea and dogs with diet-related diarrhea, probiotic supplementation had the following non diarrhea-related benefits:
- Reduced inflammation levels in allergic dogs
- Improved vaccine response and growth rates in puppies
- Lowered cholesterol in healthy dogs and those with intestinal disease
- Reduced levels of certain fecal bacteria in dogs
- Reduced the incidence of feline herpes (FHV-1) infections
Studies also suggest there are no side effects of probiotic therapy, and that supplementation is safe and easy to administer in pets.
How Probiotics Work
The exact mechanism by which probiotics work in the GI tract is as yet unknown, but the most common working theory is that friendly bacteria establishes itself in the gut, and its presence discourages proliferation of pathogenic (unfriendly) bacteria.
Dr. Ridgeway provides an expanded explanation:
“Gut bacteria serve many functions, including food product fermentation, digestion and nutrient absorption, vitamin synthesis, drug metabolism, interaction with cells for gut development and function, and host immune system modulation.
“Alterations in GI microflora secondary to illness, stress, antibiotic use, and dietary and/or environmental changes can disrupt GI homeostasis (the complex interrelationship of resident GI organisms and normal GI mucosal functions), which has far-reaching effects on host immune system and organ function.
“Probiotics may benefit affected individuals by acting at one or more points to initiate, enhance, or restore function to evoke a positive health effect.”
Selecting the specific probiotic strains to include in a veterinary supplement is currently based primarily on the strains that hold up best during product processing and are also able to effectively colonize the gut.
Going forward, research should evaluate particular strains for specific health benefits. Good candidates include strains that are derived from the species for which the probiotic is intended; are able to remain viable through product processing and storage; can survive the environment of the GI tract, including the presence of gastric acid and bile; and can adhere to and inhabit gut tissue. Of course, these strains also must be nonpathogenic and have health benefits for the animal.
I’m hopeful future evidence-based studies will reveal many more suitable probiotic strains, proper dosing levels, and the effectiveness of supplementation in a wide variety of canine and feline disorders.
How Do I Know If My Pet Needs a Probiotic Supplement?
The health of an animal’s GI tract can be easily compromised by everything from emotional stress to unhealthy lifestyle choices he has no control over.
As an example, veterinary antibiotics and corticosteroids are overprescribed, and both types of drugs can decimate the helpful bacteria in your pet’s gut. Other stressors that can open the door for pathogenic bacteria to overwhelm the good bugs include a sudden change in diet for a pet that’s been eating the same food every day for months or years; a poor quality, biologically inappropriate diet; eating non-food items like poop, grass or rocks; drinking unclean water; ingestion of toxins; vaccinations; boarding; travel; GI disease and surgery.
When GI stressors throw the balance of good-to-bad gut bacteria out of whack, it can create a cascade of nutritional and other health problems. It also opens the door to leaky gut syndrome (dysbiosis), which means your dog or cat is absorbing partially digested amino acids and allergens into the bloodstream. This can trigger a wide range of additional health problems, from allergies to autoimmune disease.
In my experience, almost every dog and cat today can benefit from probiotic supplementation.