If you have ever eaten a yogurt with live cultures, you may have taken a probiotic. The term refers to beneficial or “friendly” gut-dwelling microbes (bacteria and yeasts). There are billions of them in the gastrointestinal system of all animals, and they aid in the digestion of food, fight off potential pathogens, make nutrients and vitamins, and bolster the immune system.
The word itself is derived from the Latin word “for” (pro) and the Greek “life” (bio).
Sometimes beneficial microbes are damaged or destroyed, and that can cause stomach upset and a general decline in health. If your dog is suffering from diarrhea or related issues, or seems to get sick more than other dogs for no apparent reason, your veterinarian may suggest using one of the methods to boost beneficial bacteria:
- Prebiotics, which are nutrients that are designed to nourish and promote the growth of good bacteria that are already living in the colon.
- Probiotics, also referred to as “direct-fed microbials” by pet-food regulatory body AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials).
These products come in several different forms, including:
- Yogurt or kefir with live cultures. Keep in mind that not all yogurt cultures are created equal. Some of the cultures were used for the manufacture of the product, but are not probiotics.
- Powders, such as Purina ProPlan FortiFlora.
- Dog foods.
These products usually contain kinds of bacteria normally found in the canine gut, such as:
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Enterococcus faecium
- Bifidobacterium lactis
- Lactobacillus casei
- Bifidobacterium breve
How to Purchase and Care for a Probiotic Product
Gail Czarnecki-Maulden, Ph.d., a senior research nutritionist for Nestle Purina and one of the developers of FortiFlora, says that the big problem with these products is that they are delicate living things. “When you look at a probiotic, you are looking at live bacteria that have been adapted to living within the GI tract,” she explains in a Canine Health Foundation podcast. Exposure to air, moisture, or temperature extremes will damage their viability. That’s why some of these products are sold in individual serving packets. She also says that people should be mindful of temperature conditions when purchasing a probiotic product. “You don’t want to buy your probiotics when it’s 110 degrees outside and you go to the mall for four hours and your probiotics are sitting in a hot car for five or six hours. It’s not likely that the probiotics will survive.
Also, there are a few things you should look for on a probiotic package label, for example:
- List of specific probiotics in the product, including strain identification. Dr. Czarnecki-Maulden points out that there are several strains of bacteria, and each does something different. She cites a study in which scientists examined live microbes—Lactobacillus acidophilus—extracted from dog feces. On 97 strains, only 17 had probiotic activity, but they were not all the same. Some showed anti-inflammatory activity, while others were immune stimulants. She points out that more strains or different forms of bacteria are not necessarily better in probiotics, because they may work against one another. Of the studies conducted on how well probiotics work, she says, most have been done with single strains.
- Guaranteed analysis of how many live bacteria there will be at the end of the shelf life. Some companies may say how many live bacteria are in the product at the point of manufacture, but by the time you purchase the product, all the probiotics may have died.
- Use-before date.
When Are Probiotics Used?
Probiotics are most often prescribed for maintaining a “desirable intestinal microbial balance,” according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. When an animal is stressed or sick, the balance between the healthy and disease-causing microbes may be disrupted. This can lead to diarrhea, gas, cramping, and bad breath.
Some of the triggers for such digestive disorders include:
- Infection or bacterial imbalance
- Stress: As in humans, changes that cause emotional stress, such as boarding, moving, or losing a home, can result in colitis. That’s one reason why many dogs in shelters suffer from diarrhea. Some studies have suggested that probiotics work as well as antibiotics in clearing up diarrhea in shelter dogs.
- Diet: This can include abrupt changes in the menu, or eating food that is spoiled or that just doesn’t agree with the dog.
- Old age
- Medications: Antibiotics and long-term steroids are known culprits in causing diarrhea by killing good bacteria.
You might consider giving your healthy dog a probiotic if he is prone to developing diarrhea in stressful situations. For example, if you are planning to take your dog to a show or to board the dog, it may make sense to give probiotics for a few days in advance. Also, puppies who tend to get diarrhea after training classes of visits to the vet, for example, might benefit from a few days of probiotics in preparation for the stressful event.
Do Probiotics Work?
Anecdotal evidence—stories of individual success—exists to support the effectiveness of probiotics and some veterinarians swear by them. There are some scientific studies on the health benefits of probiotics in humans or in animals, as well, and in enhancing immune responses in growing dogs. One 2009 Irish study found that supplementation with a specific strain of Bifidobacterium animalis reduced the duration of diarrhea from seven to four days. It also eliminated the need for antibiotic treatment by about 10 percent over placebo.