Beyond Healthy Food...Probiotics
The quality of pet food we feed our pets has a huge impact on their health, their quality of life and the prevention of a number of diseases (see my previous articles about pet foods). But beyond choosing the best food, what else should we be providing in order to meet their dietary needs? In this, the second in a series of articles on pet nutrition, I will address the important role that probiotics play in the well being of your pets.
Many of us think of bacteria as harmful, or even deadly, but did you know that certain bacteria are not only desirable, but necessary for your pet's good health? "Friendly" bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifido-bacterium bifidum, and Lactobacillus bulgaricus are just a few of the helpful microorganisms that can reside in your dog or cat's intestinal tract where they play an important role in defending their bodies against disease and illness. These kinds of bacteria are referred to as "friendly" because, rather than causing illness and disease, they serve to defend your pet from harmful organisms which can invade his body from time to time.
Just like humans, your pet encounters emotional and physiological stresses everyday – and every one of these stresses can potentially affect their gastrointestinal tract. As the largest immune barrier in their body, the gastrointestinal track bears the brunt of these stresses. Everything from eating sticks and grass, to dietary changes experienced when being boarded or even just their owner being gone for the day can affect the delicate balance of good bacteria in their GI tract, which opens the door to less-than-optimal health.
In addition to the negative effects of stress, other factors such as the aging process, poor dietary choices (highly processed pet foods), prescription medications (especially antibiotics), fertilizers, pesticides and other chemical pollutants contribute to promoting an imbalance between the “friendly” versus harmful bacteria in your pet’s gastrointestinal tract.
One of the most common ways that the ratio of friendly-to-harmful bacteria gets nudged out of balance is through the use of antibiotics. Of course, the use of these drugs is not always avoidable, especially if your dog or cat is fighting a serious infection. Unfortunately, antibiotics are not able to distinguish between friendly and harmful bacteria, so when eradicating the harmful bacteria (the source of many serious infections), they also kill off a large number of friendly bacteria. This leaves your pet with even less of a defense the next time he is exposed to harmful microorganisms.
Chemicals in the water supply and soil can have much the same effect. They do eliminate many of the harmful bacteria your pet is exposed to; but they also upset the balance between good and harmful bacteria. In this way, chemicals can also have a negative impact on your pet's health.
Regardless of the cause, if your pet shows any of the signs of an unhealthy intestinal tract, this should serve as a red flag: It’s time to intervene and help your pet get his intestinal ecosystem back on the right track. Some of the most common symptoms of an unhealthy digestive tract are the following:
- Skin problems
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
One of the simplest and most effective remedies for poor digestion is to add probiotics to your pet’s diet. When ingested, these living microorganisms replenish the microflora in your pet's intestinal tract. Probiotics produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which inhibit the growth and activity of harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Clostridium perfringens.
Several studies have documented the effectiveness of certain strains in treating diarrhea, irritable bowel, and intestinal inflammation. Probiotics may also help prevent urinary tract infections, and can even reduce allergic reactions by decreasing intestinal permeability and controlling inflammation. Specific strains known to benefit dogs and cats include Enterococcus faecium (strain SF68) and Bacillus coagulans. Bifidobacterium animalis (strain AHC7) has been shown to reduce the time for acute diarrhea to resolve in dogs. Certain strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus improve frequency and quality of stools in sensitive dogs.
I feel that most pets can benefit from probiotics, but there are some important factors that owners should be aware of before purchasing and administering these supplements. The first thing to be aware of is that probiotic bacteria are host specific. Just as dogs have a variety of breeds within the species, bacteria also have a variety of different strains. This means that the L. Acidophilus strain that is beneficial to humans may not be beneficial to dogs and vice versa. Therefore, when looking to purchase a probiotic supplement for your pet always ensure that you are purchasing a pet specific product.
It is also important to understand that for a probiotic to be effective, it needs to survive the very acidic environment of the stomach and small intestine so it can reach and colonize the large intestine. One of the ways to ensure enough probiotic reaches the large intestine is to start with a very high concentration of live probiotic bacteria. As the high quantity of bacteria passes through the GI tract, some will die but the majority will survive. In order to ensure that the probiotic is effective, the dog needs to consume billions of viable bacteria. The number of live bacteria is measured as the number of colony-forming units (CFU) per gram of probiotic. When looking to purchase a probiotic, look for a product that guarantees billions of CFU per gram.
Also please be aware that there are some conditions in which you should consult your veterinarian before feeding probiotics. If your dog is immune compromised or undergoing GI surgery, or is suffering a severe bout of gastroenteritis, you should not administer probiotics until you have discussed it with your veterinarian.