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Probiotics & Prebiotics: What They are & Five Reasons I Recommend Them

By Dr. Patty Khuly

A 'regular pet' is a happy pet.

Is your pet “irregular?”

“Irregularity” is often used as a polite (if inadequate) euphemism for diarrhea and constipation, but which should by all rights include flatulence, too. In all of these cases, symptoms are accompanied (and sometimes even caused by) changes in an animal’s gastrointestinal bacteria.

That’s why veterinarians often recommend intestinal bacteria-modulating products for these pets. But what exactly are these products and how do they work? Are they right for your pets? What are their risks? Are you missing out if you don’t use them? Here’s some background info to help answer these questions:

Prebiotics and probiotics are as timeless as early agrarian societies and their soured goat’s milk, yet these therapeutic food additives comprise a relatively new field of study for veterinary nutritionists.

That’s partly because we have yet to understand the full impact of the microorganisms that live symbiotically within us. We know they help maintain the intestinal immune system, influence the proliferation of intestinal cells, and keep our body from expending too much energy in the extraction of nutrients from our foodstuffs. We’ve also recently learned that these bacterial populations have the potential to help or harm our health by aiding in many of the chemical reactions that take place in our intestines.

Which is what got veterinary medicine to thinking that we might be able to influence these bacteria by offering these simple oral additives, and by so doing improve our pets’ overall health.

So you know, intestinal prebiotics and probiotics are usually formulated as oral supplements. Some come as capsules, others as tasty chews. Others are powdered and packaged either in single-dose envelopes or sold in multi-dose containers. Still others are included in pet foods marketed “for intestinal health.”

Prebiotics for Pets

Prebiotics are fibrous food additives increasingly recommended by veterinarians. They’re nondigestible fibers that are used by the colonies of the “good” gastrointestinal bacteria that live in the large intestines, in particular. Two major classes of prebiotics have been proven effective in the treatment of infectious and non-infectious gastrointestinal diseases in both cats and dogs:

Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) contain the sugar fructose, which is preferentially used as the source of energy for the beneficial bacteria known as Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Bacteriodes. Because fructose isn’t as well-used by less beneficial bacteria (AKA, the “bad” bacteria, which include E. coli, Clostridium, and Salmonella, among others), FOS compounds offer a reproductive boost to the “good” intestinal bacteria.

Mannan oligosaccharides (MOS) work a little differently. They contain the sugar mannose, which limits the ability of “bad” bacteria to attach to the intestinal wall. As such, MOS allow the harmful bugs to be passed through the intestines without incident.

Probiotics for Pets

Probiotics work differently. Here’s the current working definition of a probiotic according to the World Health Organization (WHO):

“[Probiotics are] live microorganisms, which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”

The idea here is that adding “good” bacteria will stimulate the production of more beneficial bacteria (the ones that are presumed to be associated with specific health benefits). In this way, the entire balance of the intestinal flora will be shifted toward the beneficial bacteria.

Five Reasons I Recommend Probiotics and Prebiotics

  1. For symptomatic treatment of simple ailments
    Many of my fellow colleagues now routinely recommend prebiotics and probiotics and for any pet who shows intestinal symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and flatulence. These irregularities, which are likely to be affected by a change in the microbial mix, seem most amenable to their influence.
  2. For long-term management of chronic disease
    For others with more chronic or chronically-intermittent symptoms, however, pre and probiotics may serve well as a lifetime stop-gap for whatever underlying intestinal malady is ailing my patient.
  3. Because they’re so successful – especially when compared to riskier therapies
    They’ve been so successful — in many cases displacing the need for risk-fraught antibiotics and tricky food trials — that the trend towards using prebiotics and probiotics in veterinary medicine is ramping up.
  4. Because they’re so safe
    Because prebiotics and probiotics aren’t approved drugs and don’t undergo pre-market approval, data supporting quality, safety, and efficacy might be lacking. Nevertheless, these additives are widely considered to be harmlessly ineffective at worst.
  5. Because pet owners love them
    It’s a win-win-win. Vets love them, pets tolerate them and respond well, and their humans are happy to have something to offer that actually sounds appealing. (“What, no drugs, no side-effects, and you say my pet will do even better than on some of the other stuff? Sign me up!”)

And when pet owners love something, you can be sure veterinarians will line up to offer it. There’s nothing we love more than a happy and compliant pet owner!

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