At some point or another, we’ve all experienced having a ‘gut feeling’. Something – a feeling, a sensation – inside you that says: ‘this isn’t a good idea’, or ‘something’s not right’.
For a long time, these feelings were thought of as simply intuition, something psychological as opposed to physiological. But now, we know that our gut – and our dogs’ guts – contain something called a ‘microbiome’ which plays a big role in not only ‘gut feelings’, but so much more, including illness. And there may be a way to modify and improve it.
More than a gut feeling
A microbiome is a group of different organisms found in a particular environment. For example, your dog’s skin will have a specific type of microbiome, while their gut will have a different one. Of these, the gut microbiome is the one that has been studied a lot and which we will focus on here.
Years of research means that we now know the gut microbiome doesn’t sit idly by and not play a role in our dogs’ health. In fact, it can and does play a very active role. Alternations and deviations from the usual composition of their gut microbiome can result in your dog experiencing anything from constipation or bloating, to them developing irritable bowel syndrome. The gut microbiome is also known to play a role in the development of some types of cancer.
We now also know that a bout of illness or treatment (e.g. a course of antibiotics) can negatively disrupt and impact on your dog’s microbiome and make it go out of whack, further disrupting their general health, and in particular, their gastrointestinal tract.
What are probiotics?
Alongside this research into the gut microbiome, people have been researching if and how it can be changed or improved. This has led to a lot of research and development being done into and on probiotics.
Probiotics are ‘live’ or ‘hibernating’ bacteria. They are often added to foods like yoghurts, or they are taken in capsule or tablet form. Certain dry commercial dog foods are marketed as containing probiotics, but the quality of these varies and so isn’t the best approach to including probiotics in your dog’s diet.
The bacteria in probiotics are classified as ‘good’ and it’s thought that including them in your dog’s diet, they will help increase the number of ‘good’ bacteria in their gut. One of the ways in which probiotics work is by ‘re-colonising’ the gut microbiome. That is, they simply grow and increase in numbers in the gut, eventually crowding-out the ‘bad’ bacteria and yeast and restoring balance.
But, is there good science behind them?
Probiotics – do they work?
When it comes to testing probiotics and the benefits of them, there is some interesting data to support them doing what they’re intended to do – help improve your dog’s health by improving their gut microbiome.
The main area where probiotics are recognised as having benefit is in relation to health issues of the gastrointestinal tract and digestive issues. It’s been well documented that in humans and dogs, a course of probiotics can help to restore and balance the gut microbiome.
For example, it’s well known that if a dog requires a course of antibiotics to treat an infection, this treatment can result in them experiencing gastrointestinal issues. In particular, they can either become constipated or experience diarrhoea.
In cases such as this, it has been shown that giving your dog a course of probiotics in conjunction with antibiotics can help to restore their gut microbiome, and in turn, relieve the symptoms they are experiencing. They can also help reduce the symptoms of other gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Beyond this, there isn’t strong evidence to show that probiotics can or do improve overall gut health in otherwise healthy dogs. This doesn’t mean that proactively giving your healthy dog probiotics would necessarily harm them or do them damage. It just means that you may be wasting your money.
Pick the right one
As with everything you add to your dog’s diet, you should be careful and selective when looking at which probiotics to include in your dog’s diet. It is important to understand that “probiotics” is a very broad term. No two products are created equal, and all of them will have a different composition of probiotic bacteria in them and provide different health benefits. A one-cure-one-type-products simply won’t work. It all boils down to having the right type of bacteria in the right amounts.
Different bacteria work in different ways and so have different properties. For this reason, you should select a probiotic that contains the relevant type of bacteria for the ailment or symptoms you’re looking to treat. Take for example the bacterium Bifidus (formally known as Bifidobacterium) is known to reduce the amount of time it takes to stop acute diarrhoea in dogs. And the bacterium acidophilus (or to give it its formal name Lactobacillus acidophilus) is known to improve the quality and frequency of stools in dogs with a more sensitive gastrointestinal tract.
As well as the type of bacteria, the quantity is important. Specifically, the colony forming unit (CFU) number. This figure relates to the number of live / healthy cells within the product. The higher the CFU number, the better.
And as with everything that you feed your dog, you want to make sure that the quality is good. That’s why doing some research into the different types and makes of probiotics is important, before giving them to your dog.
It is also worth noting that while popular with people, there is no evidence that supplementing with human foods such as yogurt or kefir has any probiotic benefits for dogs.