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Friend or foe: A vet's view of probiotics

Dr Richard Allport
Article written by Dr Richard Allport

Date published 24 August 2020

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Probiotics have surged in popularity, so it's no surprise that people want to enjoy the benefits for their pets, too. Vet Richard Allport tells you everything you need to know.

Friendly bacteria?

Do bacteria have feelings? It does sound unlikely, yet we regularly hear about 'friendly' bacteria. I suspect that the bacteria in question don't really choose us as friends, but there's no doubt that some bacteria (known as probiotics) are indeed not just friendly but actually helpful to us and our pets.

Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that live in the mouth and digestive tract. They help our digestion, our oral health and our immune systems – and that's also the case for our pets.

Probiotics produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which reduce the growth and activity of harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella, as well as providing other benefits to the intestines.

They can help in treating diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome and other types of intestinal inflammation. Probiotics may help prevent urinary tract infections and can even reduce allergic reactions. They can also support the health of the teeth and gums by reducing the number of harmful bacteria in the mouth that cause gingivitis and periodontal disease.

The gut is often called 'the second brain' because it has a rich and complex nerve supply that is closely connected with the brain itself. There is constant communication between these two 'brains', and recent studies in animals show that changes in the gut bacteria seem to make mice less anxious and also affect levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

It appears very likely that this applies to all pets and to humans, too.

Choosing the right probiotic

As we've explored above, probiotics are good for the digestive and immune system, for gums, for the urinary tract and for anxiety and stress. But how do you choose a suitable probiotic product for your cat or dog?

Look for a product that contains a prebiotic as well as a probiotic. A prebiotic is a form of fibre that the probiotic bacteria can feed on and so multiply more quickly, meaning they will work better and faster. The most common prebiotics are known as fructo oligosaccharides.

Choose a product that contains more than one probiotic. Different probiotics colonise in different parts of the digestive tract, so it is logical to give your pet a formulation with two or more strains.

There is much discussion among experts as to which probiotics are most useful, but the general consensus is that Enterococcus faecium, Bifidobacterium and some Lactobacillus species are the 'go-to' probiotics for pets.

Give your pet probiotics at any time of stress (such as before and after surgery or when going into kennels and catteries), whenever there is diarrhoea or any other digestive upset, at times of urinary tract infection and whenever antibiotics are being taken, as these can adversely affect the normal balance of bacteria in the bowels.

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When to give probiotics to your pet

It has also been shown that you should give probiotics during a course of antibiotics, not just after.

When giving probiotics, administer daily, with food, and I normally recommend giving a course for at least one month.

For pets with known persistent digestive problems, allergies or other immune system disease, or those with chronic anxiety conditions, it makes sense to give probiotics every day, permanently (this is perfectly safe).

Some breeds of dog are prone to digestive problems (such as German Shepherds), some are prone to allergic skin disease (such as West Highland White Terriers) and some are prone to gum and dental disease (such as Yorkshire Terriers and most very small breeds).

These breeds may also benefit from long-term probiotic supplements to help keep these conditions at bay.

For pets that are normally healthy, give a one-month course as and when the need arises, as described above.

So although bacteria can be friends or foes, we should definitely give our pets the benefits of the friendly ones whenever they need them. Whether it's for their digestive, dental or immune health, or even their anxiety and stress levels, probiotics could be a real help.

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Dr Richard Allport

About Dr Richard Allport

Richard Allport BVetMed MRCVS VetMFHom is a qualified as a vet who specialises in natural therapies and runs the Natural Medicine Centre. Richard has written three books on the treatment of pets with natural therapies, has been on radio and TV and regularly writes for pet magazines.