Probiotics are live, intestinal microorganisms that are taken orally and trigger improved health of the recipient. In fact, these “good” bacteria have wide ranging effects on the body.
There are ten times more bacteria in our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts than there are cells in our bodies – some of them are good and some are harmful. It is scary to think that from a cellular perspective, we are more bacterial than we are human. Maintaining the balance of these organisms is important. This same principle holds true for our dogs and cats as well.
Probiotics improve the function of the intestine. That’s why probiotic supplements are often used to help pets with diarrhea. One way these microbes help the gut is by crowding out and inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria. They also interact with the gut lining to help it ward off disease-causing germs. Studies show that probiotics can not only reduce diarrhea caused by bacteria, they can also improve the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.
Probiotic bacteria also help the digestive process itself. Some of these microbes convert intestinal contents into B vitamins and vitamin K. They can digest food components that animals cannot and liberate otherwise unavailable nutrients. Some also release their own enzymes into the gut to help the body further digest and absorb food.
Seventy percent of a pet’s immune system is in its gut. That makes the GI tract the largest organ of the immune system. There is an amazing interplay between the microbes in the intestine and the systemic immune system. For example, one study showed that puppies taking probiotics responded better to their vaccinations than puppies that did not get the supplements. Another study demonstrated that when cats took probiotics the function of their white blood cells improved. Probiotics have been shown to aid with urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, respiratory infections, gingivitis and allergic dermatitis as well as decrease inflammation.
Besides improving the function of the intestine and immune system, probiotics have other systemic effects. Research on mice found that skinny mice had different bacteria in their intestines than did their overweight relatives. When the scientists introduced the “skinny mouse bacteria” into the GI tracts of the fat mice, the chubby rodents lost weight. (Perhaps this concept will someday end the need for gastric bypass surgery). Probiotics have been shown to improve glucose tolerance, decrease high cholesterol, and benefit patients with liver disease, kidney disease and pancreatitis.
So far I’ve been using the word “probiotic” as if there is only one kind and they’re all the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many species of probiotic bacteria that we know of and many strains within those species. There are sometimes hundreds of strains of any particular bacterial species and while certain strains are beneficial bugs, other strains of the same species can cause disease. Also, each strain of “good” bacteria can have vastly different beneficial effects. Each of the studies regarding the health benefits of probiotics referred to above involved different bacteria. It would be false to think that all probiotics have all of those health benefits.
In my experience, all pets can benefit from the addition of probiotics in their diets. This is especially true for animals that have taken antibiotics since these drugs kill the good bacteria along with the bad. Many other medications like corticosteroids, can throw off the intestinal balance too, as can stress, diet change, vaccinations and the drinking of contaminated water.
Even apparently healthy animals benefit from probiotics being provided in their diet on a regular basis. Most strains of probiotic bacteria do not survive for long in the GI tract necessitating frequent dosing.
What is your experience with probiotics?