Probiotics are friendly bacteria that can be used to ‘top up’ the natural bacteria in the gut when it’s been disrupted by illness, such as diarrhoea, or a course of antibiotics. Just like humans, animals have lots of bacteria naturally living in their guts, which play a very important role helping to keep them healthy by assisting with digestion and protecting against disease. For ourselves, we might use probiotics as a preventative measure, to maintain a healthy microbiome (the term commonly used for the microorganisms that live in our gut) and help avert uncomfortable digestive issues. In cats and dogs, vets tend to recommend probiotics as a treatment to support their health after illness – for example, a bout of diarrhoea.1 We may also recommend them after a course of medication, if an animal is very stressed (which can result in diarrhoea), to help settle the stomach if there’s a change of diet, or an animal has inflammatory bowel disease.
How long does it take probiotics to work in cats and dogs?
Probiotics generally start to work soon after they’re ingested. However, there are hundreds of different strains of probiotics, with specific strains suited to different animals. The most researched strains for cats and dogs are Enterococcus faecium and Bifidobacterium lactis, which are different to the strains most commonly used in human probiotics. For a probiotic to work optimally, it’s important to use a strain that will be easily absorbed by the animal it’s intended for, so ask your vet or vet nurse for advice.
Could probiotics give my pet an upset tummy?
There are no particular breeds of dog that are predisposed to tummy upsets. In general, dogs tend to have more robust digestive systems than humans – they evolved to scavenge, after all! Many owners will be familiar with the stomach-churning habits of their dogs and the fact they seem able to wolf down everything from rotting meat to fox poo, seemingly with no ill effects. They’re not immune to an upset tummy, however, so it’s worth having a probiotics product on your shelf for those mild bouts of diarrhoea. As long as your pet is otherwise well, you can give them probiotics at home. A bland diet is a good idea, too – your vet can recommend an appropriate special dog food to help settle the tummy, or you can cook up plain boiled chicken and plain boiled white rice for a day or so to help your dog’s tummy settle. If diarrhoea persists for more than a day or your dog seems very unwell, it’s important to get them to the vet. Remember too that if you do have a dog that regularly eats poo, or a cat that’s a super-mouser, you’ll need to worm them more regularly. Worms can easily be ingested via faeces and are carried by mice, therefore infecting your pet.
What else is in a pet probiotic?
As well as ‘friendly’ bacteria, some probiotics products may also include ingredients such as food-safe clays or healthy sources of fibre, to bind bacterial toxins and help firm up loose stools. Although the majority of upset tummies will get better anyway, probiotics can help speed the recovery of your pet. I’ve also personally seen some long-term cases of diarrhoea improve with probiotics, although they don’t work on every pet.
It’s always worth getting a recommendation for a quality probiotic from your vet or vet nurse – there are studies that show some veterinary probiotics to be of poor quality,2 so choose carefully. Quality is more important than an exact dosage – you want enough live bacteria to reach the gut so they can do their job. Probiotics are considered to be very safe and are extremely unlikely to cause any problems in a healthy animal.
How to give probiotics to your dog or cat:
Probiotics come in various forms, from tablets or capsules to paste or powder form. They’re generally quite palatable so you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting your pet to take them – avoid trying to tempt a fussy animal with anything too rich, though, as this may make an upset tummy worse. Skip the natural yoghurt, too, which is something we commonly associate with ‘good’ bacteria. It’s fine for humans but many cats and dogs are lactose intolerant, so better avoided.
Probiotics in pill or capsule format: Capsules can be broken open and the powder sprinkled over your pet’s usual food (try adding to wet food if you usually just give them dry to make it extra-tasty). If it’s a pill, see if your dog will take it as a treat, as many are flavoured. Otherwise, try hiding it inside a piece of plain boiled chicken or similar treat (nothing too rich).
2 Cosgrove.L, McLauchlan.G, (2014), Probiotic use in dogs and cats – issues and studies into benefits, Vet Times.
1 Weese, J. Scott; Martin, Hayley (January 2011) Assessment of commercial probiotic bacterial contents and label accuracy, NCBI.