It is a well-known fact that a healthy digestive system is essential for all-round health. The wellbeing of the digestive system affects the entire body. Having the environmental balance right in the gastrointestinal tract means efficient effective food processing to gain the nutrients needed, and has a big effect on how well the immune system functions. This means making sure that the levels of bacteria that live and work in the gut, the ‘microbiome’, is as it should be.
This microbiome consists of trillions of bacteria. Although we automatically tend to think of bacteria as ‘bad’ (pathogenic) and that they all cause illness, there are many ‘good’ bacteria. These good bacteria are the ones that help in food digestion and keep the bad bacteria in check. The good bacteria levels may sometimes suffer depletion due to a gastric upset or after a course of antibiotics. This is when prebiotic and probiotic supplementation can help to return the levels in the gut to where they should be for health. Given as part of a daily routine, they may also help prevent digestive upsets occurring from the pathogenic bacteria levels getting too high and overwhelming the good bacteria.
Types of prebiotics and probiotics for dogs and cats
Both prebiotics and probiotics can be sourced in two different ways. The pet owner can buy commercial supplements, in the form of powders, pastes and pills. It is possible to buy supplements containing both pre- and probiotics together, known as ‘synbiotic’ because the relationship between the two has a synergy, with prebiotics, in simple terms, feeding the probiotics in the system. Alternatively, if trying to feed in as natural a way as possible and giving your pet everything that they require in their food, individual ingredients added to the pet’s meals can give them the required supplementation.
Don’t confuse probiotics with enzymes for dogs or cat enzymes, as digestive enzymes are different, and most adult pets will make enough of their own enzymes without needing supplements unless they have a very specific type of condition requiring supplements.
What are enzymes and when might they be needed?
Digestive enzymes break down food that the pet eats and release the nutrients to be absorbed and used by the body. In healthy animals, the pancreas will produce plenty of the enzymes required and supplementation is not needed at all. If you think your pet may need enzyme supplementation, it is a good idea to consult your vet for confirmation, in case strong supplementation is required, or whether supplements are not required and may actually cause digestive upset.
Some pets can suffer from conditions that impair their ability to produce enough enzymes. In the case of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), the pancreas can no longer produce enzymes, and these pets need prescription-strength enzymes provided by their vet. Acute or chronic pancreatitis can harm enzyme production, as can diabetes. Older pets, especially if underweight, may benefit from supplements, as enzyme production reduces as the pet ages. Food intolerances may be helped by enzyme support, as can pets suffering from gas, frequent bouts of diarrhoea or constant very soft or mucus containing stools.
What’s the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?
Probiotics are good bacteria that are extremely beneficial to the digestive system and overall health of the animal. Examples of these bacteria include Bifidobacterium, Bacillus coagulans and Lactobacillus Acidophilus as good probiotics for dogs. Some strains of Enterococcus along with Bifidobacterium are the bacteria that work well as probiotics for cats. These bacteria all work together to make the process of breaking down and digesting food work smoothly and efficiently. An increasing amount of research taking place on the topic of gut health and the microflora of the intestinal tract shows that probiotics help support the immune system function, and keep the whole pet healthy.
Prebiotics come from some forms of soluble fibre that travel through the digestive system to the colon without undergoing digestion themselves. These then undergo conversion into nourishment for the good bacteria that are resident there.
Be aware that you can not use a human prebiotic/probiotic for your pet, you need to purchase a pet-specific prebiotic/probiotic.
What makes prebiotics and probiotics work?
Prebiotics, the indigestible carbohydrates (also called resistant starch), move through the digestive system until they reach the colon. Here they ferment and are converted into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These SCFAs act as a source of energy for the bacteria living there.
By providing support to the good bacteria, prebiotics aid in improving digestion, meaning that nutrients are absorbed better, particularly in the case of minerals) and the immune system works to its best.
Probiotics work by increasing the numbers of helpful bacteria in the digestive system. This means that there is more help to make sure that food is broken down and processed properly and efficiently. Better digestion means more nutrition gained from the food and an improved state of bodily health. Larger numbers of the healthy, beneficial bacteria also means that there is less room for the bad bacteria to gain a foothold and possibly damage the process or make the animal ill. A reduced number of bad bacteria makes digestive upsets like diarrhoea, vomiting or gastroenteritis less likely. A healthy digestive system also supports and strengthens the immune system, making the cat or dog likely to be healthier overall.
What do digestive enzymes do?
Enzymes are produced throughout the digestive tract, and different enzymes break down different types of food, such as protein, fat and carbohydrates. Different enzymes work in different parts of the digestive tract, meaning that all the components of food are processed as they move through. These different enzymes can be present in one single digestive enzyme powder or product.
Enzymes are destroyed by heat, so never heat pet food after adding enzyme supplements or add them to hot food.
How to give dogs and cats prebiotics and probiotics
Feline and canine probiotics and prebiotics can be given as capsules, pastes, powders sprinkled on the food or even in some cases as special treats with the supplement infused inside.
Other sources include a substance called inulin, found in chicory toot extract, legumes like lentils, peas, and beans, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. Dandelion greens and raw garlic are also good sources of the right kind of soluble fibre.
Probiotics are live bacteria, and one option for natural probiotics for dogs that is probably already familiar to most of us is live yoghurt. Kefir is another option. There are non-dairy options available for those dogs that have problems with dairy, and these include water kefir, sauerkraut or microalgae. If buying as a supplement and looking for the best probiotic for dogs or cats, be sure to check that the strains of bacteria included are the correct ones to benefit your pet, not humans and that there are enough live organisms contained to set up colonies and live in the intestines effectively.
When should you use prebiotics and probiotics?
Due to the way in which probiotics support digestion and the immune system, many think that adding them to your pet’s diet daily is a great idea. The immune system boost and support of digestive health is a benefit to all animals, no matter their health status. Due to the differences in how their digestive systems work, a number of vets believe that cats, in particular, will find probiotics in their regular dietary routine extremely beneficial.
Probiotics are often recommended to help restore balance in the digestive system after an upset stomach, and particularly after a course of antibiotics that, by their very nature, kill bacteria and are not very selective about it. Some vets will advise beginning probiotics at the same time as the antibiotic treatment begins, although giving them at different times of the day, and continuing after the treatment course is finished, to speed up rebalancing the gut flora. Animals with acute or chronic gastrointestinal complaints like gastroenteritis, colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Inflammatory Bowel Disease can benefit from probiotics to try and keep their microflora balanced and boost gut health in an attempt to improve the situation. They can be beneficial for dogs that appear to have a sensitive stomach by proactively protecting them, and help to maintain the health of the gut lining. Probiotics also seem to have a positive effect on animals that are going through or about to go through stressful situations like going into kennels or moving house, helping to prevent stress-related digestive upsets.
Due to the way in which prebiotics act as food for the good bacteria introduced by giving probiotics, some experts recommend giving both together, particularly following antibiotic use or after a digestive upset of some kind.
Are digestive enzymes safe for pets?
Giving pets enzyme supplements as routine is not necessary, as healthy animals will produce all that they need. Prescription-strength enzymes should only be given to pets diagnosed with EPI (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency), as they can be highly concentrated to counter the fact the pet’s pancreas can no longer produce enzymes.
Enzyme supplements can sometimes cause undesirable side effects, such as vomiting, loose stools, gas or showing signs of abdominal discomfort. If these symptoms occur, discontinue use straight away.
Follow label instructions if using pet-specific enzymes, or adjust according to the pet’s weight if using human supplements. Do not use enteric-coated human supplements, as the coating means that they will pass through the animal’s shorter gastrointestinal tract without being utilised.
Are prebiotics and probiotics safe for dogs and cats?
There appears to be very little evidence that probiotics are unsafe for our pets, although if giving a form such as live yoghurt or kefir, it is wise to keep an eye out for any signs they are not tolerating the dairy very well and be prepared to switch to a non-dairy form if necessary.
The safety and health implications of prebiotics are much more of a grey area, with differences of opinions to be found. Some experts state that there is little risk in giving prebiotics to animals with healthy digestive systems, but that giving them to pets undergoing a digestive issue could make the situation worse, while others always advise using prebiotics and probiotics together to gain the maximum benefit. As the soluble fibre that makes up prebiotics is a form of sugar, there is a possibility it may potentially cause a problem with an overgrowth of certain yeasts if the pet has a compromised immune system. Some prebiotic ingredients can also cause issues such as gas, bloating or loose stools. For these reasons, common advice is to try introducing prebiotics gradually, keeping a careful watch for any of these symptoms. If the dog or cat seems fine with the prebiotics then it is fine to continue them, but reduce the dosage or stop giving them if symptoms arise.If giving a fibre supplement, as well as watching out for the signs above, ensure that your pet always has plenty of fresh, clean water to drink. If they are reluctant to drink enough, you can try adding more water to their food to make sure they are getting plenty.