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What are probiotics? Why and when should I give them to my dog or cat?

Dogs and cats have a lot of microorganisms, aka gut flora, living in their gut (10 followed by 12 to 14 zeroes, according to the latest research), most of them being bacteria from 3 major families. These ‘good’ bacteria do a lot of jobs in return for accommodation, from helping with the absorption of nutrients from food, to promoting immune function, to actively producing substances that your pet’s body needs to keep healthy. There’s a win-win relationship with them, so they are referred to as mutualistic bacteria.

Besides them, the gut also contains microbes that are simply taking advantage of a nice warm place to live without causing any harm (called commensals), though some of them could cause problems given half a chance (these are known as opportunistic pathogens).

The third type of microbes in the gut are known as pathogens because their ‘lifestyle’ always causes trouble to the host. They usually enter the gut by accidental ingestion and again, most of them are bacteria, though viruses, yeasts and one-cell parasites are part of this group too.

The gut’s immune system tries to remove the pathogens asap and, together with the mutualist bacterial populations, keep the commensals in low numbers. From time to time, though, this delicate balance gets disturbed.

This can be caused by:

  • sudden changes in food or treats (e.g. new type, with a different protein-fat-carbohydrates ratio, human food with too much salt, fat or spices),

  • non-digestible objects that irritate the gut lining with their hard texture,

  • pathogen-contaminated stuff (e.g. cat poo, fox poo, decomposing foods),

  • presence of worms,

  • certain medications (anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, etc),

  • other illnesses, even unrelated to the gut or

  • stress (like leaving mum and siblings to go to their permanent home, being away in catteries or kennels, etc).

What are probiotics and how do they work?

Probiotic supplements are products containing high concentrations of beneficial bacteria for the dog and cat gut (the probiotic proper, usually bacteria of the Enterococcus family). For a better effect, they are often combined with a prebiotic (simple carbohydrates that feed the bacteria) and occasionally with substances that feed the cells of the gut lining, neutralise the toxins of ‘bad’ bacteria and help make the stool more solid (usually natural sugars and clay derivatives or plant extracts).

As you might have guessed already, probiotics help increase the numbers of the ‘good’ bacteria and restore a normal gut function. Because the gut flora is very specific for a species, human probiotics like Actimel or Yakult are not suitable for cats and dogs because they contain bacteria meant for the human colon.

What type of probiotics are there?

The quality of a probiotic supplement is determined by the concentration of ‘good’ bacteria in it and the addition of gut-supportive ingredients, both usually listed on the package. Their various formulation (paste, tablets or granules) has nothing to do with it. Here are a few brands routinely used in vet practice, sorted by type.

When should probiotics be used?

Since they contain only beneficial bacteria and naturally occurring substances, you can’t do much wrong with probiotics. Try them as a first aid for:

Please use probiotics only in pets that are well in themselves apart from the abnormal stool, until the stool is back to normal for at least 2-3 days.

Use the dose recommended on the package. If there’s no improvement after 4-5 days of probiotics or if your pet has other signs apart from the diarrhoea, like vomiting, inappetence or seems in pain, please consult a vet.

If you’re not sure which probiotics to choose or how to use the ones you got, use the button below this article to book an appointment with us and, within 30 minutes, one of our helpful vets can answer your questions.


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