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Have you ever taken a probiotic? If you’ve ever eaten yogurt with live cultures, the answer is probably yes. Probiotics are beneficial or “friendly” gut-dwelling microbes (bacteria and yeasts), and there are billions of them in the gastrointestinal system of all animals. 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). Probiotics for dogs are a nutritional tool to consider for the health of your best friend.

Sometimes—due to illness, stress, medications, or other factors—these 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 other gastrointestinal issues, or if your dog seems to get sick more than other dogs for no apparent reason, your veterinarian may suggest using these helpful tools to boost beneficial bacteria:

  • Prebiotics are nutrients that are designed to nourish and promote the growth of good bacteria that are already living in the gut.
  • Probiotics, which can also be referred to as “direct-fed microbials” by the pet-food regulatory body AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials).

You can find pre- and probiotics in several different forms that dogs can eat, 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. Only offer your dog unsweetened, plain yogurt, and read labels carefully to avoid all artificial sweeteners.
  • Powders
  • Capsules
  • Chews
  • Dog foods
Yorkshire Terrier waiting to take its medication.
©karelnoppe -

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 for Dogs

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.”

There are also 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 beneficial gut 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.
Golden Retriever eating from a stainless steel bowl indoors.
Zinkevych/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

When Are Probiotics for Dogs Used?

Probiotics for dogs are most often prescribed for maintaining a “desirable intestinal microbial balance,” according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. When a dog 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 upsets can include:

  • Infection or bacterial imbalance
  • Stress: As in humans, changes that cause emotional stress, such as boarding, moving, traveling, 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 diet, eating spoiled food, or food that just doesn’t agree with the dog.
  • Old age
  • Medications: Antibiotics and long-term steroids are known culprits in causing diarrhea because they kill off good bacteria.
  • Parasites

You might consider giving your healthy dog a probiotic if they are prone to developing diarrhea in stressful situations. For example, if you are planning to take your dog to a show or to boarding for a week, it may make sense to give them probiotics a few days in advance. Also, puppies who tend to get diarrhea after training classes or visits to the vet, for example, might benefit from a few days of probiotics in preparation for the stressful event.

Do Probiotics for Dogs 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.

Related article: How to Tell Your Dogs Age
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