Probiotic supplements are everywhere. You might be taking one. Should your dog?
Nutritional supplements containing live microorganisms (bacteria and/or yeast) that aim to improve health can be considered probiotics. They are typically used to improve the workings of the gastrointestinal tract, and they certainly do play an important role in this regard.
Consider a dog with diarrhea, for example. Whatever the cause—stress, dietary indiscretion, infection, antibiotic therapy—the diarrhea will sometimes persist even after the initial problem has resolved. The blame often lies with an imbalance between two categories of gut microorganisms:
- those that promote normal, healthy gastrointestinal function
- those that secrete toxins or are otherwise disruptive when they are present in larger than normal numbers
Probiotics are essentially a way of boosting the number of “good” microorganisms present in the gastrointestinal tract, thereby helping them to out-compete the “bad” ones.
It also appears that probiotics can improve canine health in other ways: They seem to be able to beneficially modify an animal’s immune function.
Studies have shown that probiotic supplementation can help treat infections outside of the gastrointestinal tract as well as some allergic and inflammatory diseases. This isn’t too surprising given that a large proportion of the body’s immune system is associated with the gut. Anything that influences the immune system there could have a wide-spread benefit.
One of the downsides of probiotic supplementation is the fact that the microorganisms aren’t able to effectively stay and reproduce within the gastrointestinal tract for a long period of time. The noticeable benefits of probiotics tend to wane once supplementation is stopped. This isn’t a big problem if you are giving a probiotic to deal with a short-lived problem—say diarrhea associated with antibiotic use—but for chronic disorders, probiotic supplements often need to be given more or less continually. This can be done safely, but the expense and inconvenience may eventually become an issue.
Three strategies are helpful if you find yourself in this situation.
- Many people have found that when taking probiotics themselves, they can eventually move to an every-other-day or even less frequent dosing schedule. The same is probably true for dogs. I recommend following the instructions on your dog’s probiotic supplement for at least a month or two to determine what the maximal benefits might be. Then play around a bit to see if you can get away with giving it every other day or just a couple of times a week.
- Consider adding a prebiotic supplement to your dog’s diet. Prebiotics are non-digestible ingredients that support the growth of probiotic microorganisms. Think of prebiotics as a way to preferentially feed the “good” microorganisms in the gut, giving them a potential advantage in their competition with the “bad” microorganisms. Fructo-oligosaccharides, beet pulp, chicory, arabinogalactan, and inulin are all commonly used prebiotics for dogs.
- If you can identify and address the underlying cause of your dog’s symptoms (e.g., poor diet, gastrointestinal or immune disorders, chronic stress, etc.) you may find that probiotic supplementation is no longer necessary.