Chris Vanderhoof, DVM, MPH
Gastrointestinal health is a significant topic of concern for many pet parents. Questions about diet and digestive supplements are one of the most common categories discussed during veterinary exams.
In this article, we’re going to focus on probiotics and the impact they can have on gut health for your pup.
What is a Probiotic?
Probiotics are essentially the types of bacteria and yeast that the digestive tract needs to help it to break down and properly digest nutrients.
The intestinal tract is an environment that supports many different strains of bacteria, as well as yeast, that all need to be maintained within a certain balance to help with proper digestion and avoid digestive upset.
Dogs can have trillions of these microscopic organisms, mostly concentrated in their intestinal tract, with each pup having a unique balance depending on diet, overall health, lifestyle, and other factors.
A probiotic substance or product, is one that contains varying strains of these beneficial bacteria and yeast. Some natural foods, like yogurt, contain probiotics, while there are also many commercial products available.
What Does a Probiotic Supplement Have in It?
Probiotic products can certainly vary widely, but all of them will have at least one or more strains of bacteria that the gut needs to help keep things in balance and digest nutrients properly.
Some products have multiple bacterial strains like Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Enterococcus among others.
The numbers of bacteria present are important, as the higher the numbers the better when it comes to supplementing. The levels of bacteria present are expressed as colony-forming units (CFUs) with numbers typically in the billions. Numbers of 5 billion or more CFUs are very common.
Some probiotic products don’t just contain probiotics but also other ingredients to help with digestive health. These other ingredients may include digestive enzymes, sources of soluble and insoluble fiber, and ingredients that act as prebiotics.
Prebiotics are ingredients that help encourage the growth and health of the beneficial microorganisms in the gut by contributing to the nutrients they need to thrive.
How is a Powder or Treat Product a Good Probiotic?
This is a common question because it can be hard to understand how any product, whether in a powder form or one that looks like a chew treat, kept at room temperature could possibly contain live bacteria.
A great scientific article that answers this question can be found in a 2020 blog article posted on the website for the International Scientific Association for Probiotic and Prebiotics (ISAPP) written by Gabriel Vinderola, PhD, an associate professor in microbiology at the National University of Litoral in Argentina.
In the article, Professor Vinderola explains that many probiotic products appear as a white powder due to the process of freeze-drying or lyophilization. By quickly removing water from around and inside the bacterial cells, the microbes are not killed, but enter a dormant state where their metabolic activity is put on hold.
This process also allows these bacteria in stasis to be included in crunchy and chewy supplement treats.
When these dormant little bacteria enter the gut, the environmental conditions trigger a restart in the metabolic processes of the bacteria, allowing them to grow, reproduce, and generally be active to provide their health benefits.
It’s true that some amount of cell death may still occur during a product’s shelf life, but this is one reason why such high levels of colony forming units (CFU’s) are found in probiotics.
When Should I Use a Probiotic Supplement?
Many advocate use of a probiotic supplement for overall digestive health even if there are no major digestive concerns. Probiotics are generally regarded to be safe products, only supplementing what the body already has but can’t have too much of.
But there are some signs that digestive health is being impacted where adding in a probiotic supplement can be helpful.
Diarrhea is a major one. While diarrhea can have many causes, all of them involve a shift in the intestinal tract’s homeostasis. If there is a shift in the bacterial balance within the digestive tract (where causes may include stress, diet change, infection, and other factors), this can lead to overgrowth of less desirable bacteria that may contribute to what is called dysbiosis. When dysbiosis occurs, we can see diarrhea develop.
Probiotics can be helpful to support gut health in these cases by trying to shift things back into balance with high levels of the friendly bacteria the gut needs.
If your pup is a constant sniffer and scavenger of the ground, sometimes ingesting really gross things like the feces of other animals (a common but nasty behavior), adding in a probiotic can help provide a buffer against any shifts in balance that your pup’s dietary indiscretions may lead to.
If you feel that your pup is not absorbing nutrients well or has trouble maintaining weight, probiotics can be beneficial to support normal gut health and digestion.
Keep in mind that probiotics are rarely used by veterinarians on their own as a treatment for any particular disease condition. However, they are commonly used in conjunction with other therapies to maintain gut balance.
If your pup has any digestive issues you are concerned about, it is always a good idea to see your vet to have your pooch examined and discuss treatment advice. Certain tests may need to be done to look for disease and find a diagnosis and this can be really important for proper treatment.
For example, if your dog has picked up an intestinal parasite, a stool sample submitted to your vet can detect it and the proper treatment can be prescribed. While a probiotic may help with signs that develop resulting from imbalance a parasite causes, it’s not going to get rid of the parasite.
How Do I Choose a Probiotic Supplement?
There are so many probiotic supplements out there, so how do you know which one to get? First, your vet may recommend a specific one, especially if your pup has a medical condition, as there are some available only through a prescription.
But when looking at general products, it’s helpful to look for a few different things. First, look for a wide array of probiotic organisms. While a single strain isn’t bad, a good balance involves just that and there are many different bacteria strains in the gut.
Next, look at the amount of bacteria present. Generally, you want to see products that have billions of CFUs. The gut has trillions of organisms present, so you want to make sure you’re supplementing enough to make a difference and help maintain health.
Next, look at other ingredients in a product. Are there other digestive aid ingredients like fiber, digestive enzymes, or prebiotics that may help?
Last, look for a product made by a company with good standards and manufacturing practices. There are many companies that make probiotic products, but not all supplements are created equal. When looking for a great quality supplement, make sure to look for products that carry the quality seal of the National Animal Supplement Council.
Member companies like Pet Honesty that carry the NASC Quality Seal on their products must adhere to stringent labeling compliance, have ingredients in their products like probiotics reviewed, and must have documented quality control.
Gut health is a very important part of overall health and probiotics can be a useful addition to your pup’s daily regimen. While probiotics can be beneficial in many cases of digestive upset, always make sure to touch base with your vet to ensure that a proper diagnosis and treatment plan is involved.
If you are interested incorporating a probiotic supplement into your dog's diet, try Pet Honesty's Digestive Probiotics with 6 billion CFUs/Serving, Prebiotics + enzymes.