More and more products with prebiotics, probiotics and/or digestive enzymes are popping up on grocery store shelves. What exactly are these “biotics” and why are they so popular? Have you ever wondered whether or not your pet needs them too?
1. What are probiotics?
Probiotics are the good microorganisms (bacteria or yeast) living in your pet’s digestive tract. When provided in adequate amounts, probiotics can improve gastrointestinal (GI) health. Probiotics are designed to survive until they reach the colon, where they work to increase the number of healthy bacteria in the GI tract. Stress, antibiotics and poor diet can upset the balance of the microorganisms in the GI tract, leading to illness in your pet.
Therefore, supplementing your pet’s diet with probiotics or feeding a pet food that contains probiotics are ways to support GI health.
2. What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are components in food that remain undigested until they reach the large intestine where they act as vital food sources for good bacteria (i.e. probiotics) that live there. The most common examples of prebiotics in pet food are inulin, oligofructose, and fructooligosaccharides (FOS). Studies have shown that pets fed recipes containing prebiotics have higher levels of beneficial bacteria in their stool, particularly Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli1. Prebiotics have also been shown to improve regularity and stool quality.
3. What are digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are biologically active proteins that help break down and digest nutrients. Because of similarities in how probiotics and digestive enzymes are named on a bag of pet food, they can sometimes be confused. However, it is important to realize that not only are probiotics and digestive enzymes different in structure, they also have very different functions in terms of supporting GI health.
A key difference between probiotics and digestive enzymes are that probiotics are living organisms (good bacteria), whereas digestive enzymes are non-living proteins.
While probiotics support GI and immune health by ensuring an optimal balance of good bacteria in the gut, digestive enzymes work to digest food by targeting and breaking down specific nutrients into their absorbable components. For example, lipase – a lipid targeting enzyme – will break down fats into their fatty acid components, while protease – a protein targeting enzyme – will break down proteins into amino acids. Studies have shown that digestive enzymes not only aid in digestion, they can also improve stool quality in pets.2
The protease enzymes found in GO! SOLUTIONS™ Carnivore recipes are Bacillus subtilis and Aspergillus oryzae.
4. What is the microbiome and what affects it?
The microbiome is the community of microorganisms that inhabit a human or animal’s body. Some scientists consider the microbiome to be a new “organ” because of its importance to the immune system and overall health. In humans, it has been reported that there are more than 10 times as many microbial cells than human cells.
Diet, antibiotics and illness can disturb the composition of the microbiome. An imbalance in the composition of the microbiome has been associated with digestive disorders, such as gas, bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome. Fortunately, the microbiome is quite resilient and can restore itself when it has been disturbed, though this could take several months or even years. Ingredients such as prebiotics and probiotics in pet food are a way to improve the bacterial composition of the microbiome.
4. Should dogs and cats be fed yogurt as a source of probiotics?
Yogurt may provide benefits for your dog or cat since new evidence suggests that consuming a variety of probiotics from food is beneficial. However, probiotics are not the same as the “live and active cultures” found in yogurt. These refer to the Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles that are used to ferment milk to make yogurt. The majority of yogurt in the marketplace is made with these two starter cultures. A known benefit of these cultures is that they break down the lactose found in milk for easier digestion.
Some yogurts have added probiotic strains. Since yogurts are generally sold for human consumption, the probiotic strains are those shown to be beneficial in humans, but not necessarily pets. Research in dogs and cats on the benefits of each probiotic strain used in yogurts is still required.
5. Will feeding probiotics help my pet with allergies?
Although it is believed that there is an association between the gut microbiome and allergies, more research is needed. Most of the research in this area has been performed in humans, not pets. Ideally, consuming probiotics would help to prevent the development of allergies.
The World Allergy Organization has provided guidelines that recommend the use of probiotics in women who are pregnant and breastfeeding and at high risk for having an allergic child as well as in high risk infants. Thus, it is possible that probiotics could also play a role in allergy prevention in pets, but much more research is needed before recommendations can be made.3
This blog was originally published on October 1, 2015. Last revised July 21, 2020.
1. Gibson, G.R. and M.B. Roberfroid, eds. Handbook of Prebiotics. 2008.
2. Twomey, L.N., et al. Anim. Feed Sci, Technol., 2003. 108(1): 71-82.
3. Fiocchi, A., et al. World Allergy Organ J., 2015. 8(1).
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