Interest in probiotics for dogs seems to be growing.
In this article we dig into the scientific evidence behind the hype, and find out if probiotics could be beneficial for your Labrador.
Dogs and Probiotics
More than anything else, we want our dogs to be happy and healthy in our care. Of course we do, we love them!
Well we owe them the very best we can give, right? And we feel terrible if we think we’re depriving them of it.
Then if we find out those supplements are just recreating natural goodness, we’re already half way out of our seats to get to the pet store!
Dog probiotics have been around for several years now, and they have been carefully marketed to tap into all these feelings.
But are dog probiotics really as good as they promise to be?
What Are Dog Probiotics?
Probiotics are living bacteria, grown in controlled conditions. They are added to foods, powders, chews and treats. The intension is that hopefully they ultimately end up living in your dog’s intestines.
Just like us, our dogs’ intestines host all kinds of bacteria. Some of these are disease-causing (like Clostridium and Escherichia), but many are “good” (such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli).
In exchange for somewhere to live, good bacteria help us. They digest carbohydrates, suppress the number of disease-causing bacteria, and even improve our immune function.
The Rise of Probiotics for Dogs
Human fascination with consuming probiotics to increase the number of good bacteria in our bodies has been growing for decades.
Then in the Noughties, the Federal Trade Commission, the European Food Safety Authority and the UK Advertising Standards Authority all found that the market-leading manufacturer of probiotics didn’t have enough evidence to prove all the health benefits they claimed to deliver.
Whilst the products are still on sale, they are advertized with a little more reserve now.
Meanwhile, what started as a healthy eating trend for us, quickly began to migrate into the pet food market as well.
Now there is a vast array of dog probiotics on sale. Promising your dog better digestive comfort, enhanced immunity against infections, a glossy coat and a healthy glow.
Many of them claim to be “scientifically proven!!!!!” and usually have the price tag to match.
But how much credibility do they really deserve?
How Do Probiotics For Dogs Work?
This is a question we’re only just starting to answer in humans, and inevitably research into how probiotics work in dogs is lagging slightly behind.
We do know that dogs don’t naturally have as many bacteria in their gut as humans do, and they’re less reliant on them to digest carbohydrates than we are.
Without a more detailed answer yet, we can only speculate how we think they work by measuring the improvement in health of dogs that take them.
Let’s take a look at that now.
Are Probiotics Good For Dogs?
In 2004 a team of researchers at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in the UK supplemented the diet of fifteen healthy adult dogs with the probiotic Lactobacilli acidophilus.
They found that after four weeks the number of Lactobacilli acidophilus living in the dogs’ intestines had increased, and the number of disease-causing Clostridium bacteria had decreased.
There were even indications that the quality of the dogs’ blood had improved.
This all sound amazing right? But unfortunately there’s a catch.
The Difficulty of Finding the Best Dog Probiotics
The team at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition grew their probiotics as they went, and gave them straight to the dogs.
Obviously that’s not something we can do in our own homes, so we need to buy food or supplements with probiotics already added.
And therein lies the problem.
Growing bacteria and then keeping them alive during the pet food manufacturing/packaging/storing/shipping process is incredibly difficult.
Most of the good bacteria dogs have in their digestive system can’t be grown outside of a dog using any of the techniques currently available to us. So a “complete” probiotic is already out of the question.
In 2003, J Scott Weese and Luis Arroyo at the Ontario Veterinary College found that out of nineteen probiotic pet foods on the market, none contained all the types good bacteria they claimed to.
Over half were growing bacteria they shouldn’t have been. A quarter of them didn’t have any living good bacteria in them at all.
More recently, in 2013 Łukasz Grześkowiak and his team at the University of Turku in Finland found that pet food manufacturing processes often alter probiotics. So even if they survive, they lose the ability to “stick” inside dogs’ intestines.
Which means they’ll be passed straight through without imparting any benefit on the way.
Natural Probiotics For Dogs
In the face of so much doubt over commercially produced dog probiotics, natural sources of probiotics start to look very appealing.
The raw food probiotic options for dogs are specially formulated yoghurts and kefirs (fermented milk drinks), fermented vegetables, and green tripe.
These have their own drawbacks. Not all dogs can stomach dairy products or fermented vegetables.
In fact a lot of dogs probably won’t even touch fermented vegetables come to that!
Green tripe is a wonderfully nutritious food for dogs, and a cornerstone of many raw-feeding diets. But bear in mind that many of the probiotics it once contained will have died in the butchering process.
Are Probiotics Right For Your Dog?
Amazing results are far from guaranteed, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t notice any difference in your dog if you give them probiotics.
If you’d like to go down this route, you’ll need to start by finding a quality probiotic product.
Your vet is ideally placed to recommend the best dog probiotic supplement available locally to you.
We’d never recommend that you make major changes to your pet’s diet without consulting your vet first.
Bear in mind, probiotics aren’t subject to any regulation or independently imposed quality standards.
When Weese and Arroyo tested their pet foods, they also noted that a quarter of the products they tested mispelled or used out of date classifications to describe the probiotics they added to the food.
Misleading and low quality products are out there, and your vet can help you avoid them.
Can I Use Human Probiotics For Dogs?
The problem with this is that we underestimate how many kinds of bacteria there are.
They’re only one cell big, so we tend to think of them as boring.
But they’ve existed for billions of years and colonized every habitat on Earth. And in doing so they’ve evolved into hundreds of thousands of different types.
Many uniquely adapted to survive in their own environment.
And dogs and humans have adapted too, to host and benefit from our own special populations of gut bacteria.
But human gut bacteria and dog bacteria aren’t the same. For example we know that the dominant good bacteria in humans are Bifidobacteria species. But in 2004 a team at the University of Reading found that dogs only have relatively small numbers of Bifidobacteria.
So human probiotics will disrupt and unbalance a dog’s gut bacteria, rather than complement and enhance it.
If you want to try giving your dog probiotics, find them a probiotic developed for dogs.
Probiotics for puppies and dogs with chronic illnesses – when NOT to give probiotics
Whilst probiotic and prebiotic supplements are safe for most dogs, there are some occasions when they should not be used:
1. Puppies under six months old
Baby animals only acquire a tiny proportion of their gut bacteria while they are in the womb. In fact until recently we didn’t think they have any at the moment they’re born.
Gut bacteria is acquired after birth by nursing, contact with the environment, and eventually through weaning.
Giving probiotics to young puppies could overload their intestines with an unsafe amount of bacteria, and cause stomach upsets.
If you would like to start giving your young dog probiotics, consult your vet ahead of time to make sure you pick the right moment.
2. If your dog is already ill
Worried pet owners often seek out probiotics for dogs with diarrhea.
However, unless your vet has recommended it, this is not the time to experiment.
Giving Dogs Probiotics: side effects and when to stop
As when you make any alterations to your dog’s diet, it’s important not to make big changes too rapidly.
Unpleasant side effects are rare, and a safety study carried out by the Ohio-based Proctor & Gamble Pet Care Technical Center found that giving a specific Bifidobacterium strain of good bacteria to beagles was “well tolerated with no safety concerns”.
This tallies with our general understanding that if you take steps to maintain an enhanced population of good bacteria in your dog using probiotic supplements, you might notice some health benefits.
And at worst, your dog will just pass everything straight out in their poo.
If you do notice any signs of stomach upset, discontinue feeding probiotics immediately, and seek veterinary treatment if the symptoms persist.
Dog Probiotics vs Dog Prebiotics
So the jury is still out on whether achievable benefits of probiotics for dogs have been proven.
Which is why I also want to talk to you about prebiotics for dogs.
These have been subject to less research than probiotics so far, but the studies that have been done have received a far more unanimously favorable verdict.
Other than one little vowel, what’s the difference?
Prebiotics are the sugars that probiotics eat. They increase the number of the good bacteria by feeding them so the population grows.
The obvious advantage of prebiotics over probiotics is that they can’t die or deteriorate in the manufacturing process, so the quality of the product is assured.
Meta-analyses of prebiotics for dogs in America, the United Kingdom, India and Belgium have all found that feeding dogs prebiotics improves the balance of good and bad bacteria in their gut, increases digestion of proteins, and enhances their immune function.
(Meta-analysis is when scientists review lots of small studies to find out if they are more compelling when considered all together. Meta-analysis is how we first realized that smoking is bad for us!)
If you’d like to try prebiotics as an alternative to probiotics, we still recommend you discuss them with your vet to find the most suitable product for your dog.
Are Dog Probiotics Worth A Try?
It might feel like probiotics have been around a long time now, but scientific research to prove their benefit in dogs is still in it’s infancy.
There’s certainly some promising evidence that a diet supplemented by probiotics could help keep our dogs healthy.
The problem lies in how to get the living probiotics into your dog.
So far, commercial pet food manufacturers have struggled to reliably harness probiotics in pre-prepared foods or a supplement. As well as this, enthusiasm to profit from their popularity means that some poor quality and misleading products have reached the market.
However, you are unlikely to ever do your dog any harm with probiotics, as long as any changes in diet are made in consultation with your vet.
So, if you think your dog might benefit from probiotics, and you would like to try them, go for it!
Do you give your dog probiotic dog food?
What has your experience of probiotics for dogs been?
Did you introduce them to improve your dog’s overall health, or tackle a specific upset? Do you think they worked, and have you continued using them?
Please share your experience in the comments section below.
<em>”Today’s article is by Sarah Holloway. Sarah holds a bachelors degree in Zoology and has a special interest in animal behavior and communication”</em>
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- Grześkowiak, Ł. et al, (2014), “Pathogen exclusion properties of canine probiotics are influenced by the growth media and physical treatments simulating industrial processes”, Journal of Applied Microbiology, 116: 1308-1314
- Kelley, R. L. et al, (2010), “Safety and tolerance of dietary supplementation with a canine-derived probiotic (Bifidobacterium animalis strain AHC7) fed to growing dogs”, Veterinary Therapeutics: Research in Applied Veterinary Medicine, 11(3): E1-14.
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