Probiotics have been big news for years, with many of us supplementing our daily diets with yogurts, shakes, and anything else that claims to heal our guts, restore our bowel function, and perform any number of other minor miracles along the way. Recently, the benefits of live cultures have extended beyond the human world and into the pet sphere, promising to deliver the same health benefits to our four-legged companions as they do to us. But do they work? And are they worth the expense? According, to the experts, yes and yes… although there are a few things you need to bear in mind before reaching for the supplements.
What are Probiotics?
In essence, there’s no real difference between the probiotics in our pet’s diet and those in our own. In layman’s terms, probiotics are a form of friendly bacteria that help support and promote healthy digestion, while simultaneously increasing absorption of key nutrients and repressing the growth of “unfriendly” bacteria, yeasts, and viruses that, left to their own devices, could result in sickness and disease. In the pet world, probiotics are usually prescribed as a supplement, typically in the form of a powder, chew, liquid or spray.
Key Benefits of Probiotics for Cats
The potential benefits of probiotics are wide-ranging, and over the last couple of years, many animal experts have jumped on the “friendly bacteria” bandwagon. One such expert is LA-based veterinarian and veterinary journalist, Dr. Patrick Mahaney. “I am a fan of probiotics as a way of maintaining gut health, not only so there are fewer signs of digestive upset like decreased appetite or stool changes but also in terms of promoting immune system health,” he explains to PetMd.
As Mahoney notes, the immune-boosting properties of probiotics can’t be overstated. Immunity and good digestive health are bedfellows: if one gets thrown off course, you can bet your bottom dollar the other will soon start suffering. While the full reason behind digestive problems still remains something of a mystery, many experts believe that irritable bowel disease and other conditions like it can be attributed in part to commercial cat food. “(Dry food) doesn’t exist in nature,” Mahoney says. “It is not really what cats should eat. If they are always eating something that doesn’t agree with their GI tract, a problem (can develop) over time. They may start vomiting or not eat like they should. IBD is a big concern that ends up costing a lot of time and money.”
The symptoms of IBD and an unhealthy digestive tract are far-ranging, but often include one, or in the worst cases, all of the below:
- Skin allergies
- Food allergies
Although the best solution would be to abandon the convenience of kibble and start cooking up our own home-made cat food from scratch, not all of us have the time, or let’s face it, the money, to abandon dry food for good. If probiotics can help mitigate the downsides, then it stands to reason they must be “A Good Thing”. Mahoney isn’t the only fan of probiotics. Veterinarian Dr. Alison Birkin of Pet Central is equally enamored with the health-giving benefits of live cultures. As well as recommending their use to cats with chronic illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, neoplasia or food allergies, or for pets with a sensitive digestive tract, she also prescribes them as a preventive measure during times of stress (e.g. when a cat is boarding and traveling), or to make the transition on to a new type of food easier.
Types of Probiotics
If you’ve been convinced to give probiotics a try, don’t go thinking that one probiotic is the same as any other. Although there’s no real evidence to suggest feeding your cat the same probiotic supplement you take yourself will do any harm, the jury is still out on whether it will do any good, either. A cat’s digestive tract and the microflora that inhabit it are very different to humans: whether or not a human probiotic will therefore have the same properties when ingested by a cat is questionable. Similarly, the digestive systems of dogs and cats are very different, with a cat’s small intestine being much smaller than their canine equivalent. As a result, a probiotic intended for a dog might have limited benefit when fed to a cat.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of probiotics out there that are intended just for cats. Most experts suggest looking for a probiotic supplement that offers a diverse range of bacteria to optimize efficiency. A supplement containing bacteria from both the Bifidobacterium and Enterococcus families tends to be the most well suited to a cat’s digestive system, and work in tandem to maximize health. Enterococcus, for example, lives in the colon and helps maintain good colonic health. Bifidobacterium, meanwhile, lives in the small intestine and does great things for digestion. Together, they combine to make a veritable powerhouse.
How to Supplement with Probiotics
As with everything, getting the dosage right is key to maximizing the health-giving potential of probiotics. Be sure to read the instructions on the packet carefully to ensure the exact dosage. Rather than wait until your cat starts to show symptoms of digestive distress, most experts recommend introducing a daily supplement into your cat’s everyday diet as early as possible- a great preventive measure and one that’s surprisingly easy to do, especially if you infuse the probiotic into a treat or edible pill pocket.
Risks of Probiotics
We’ve seen the benefits of probiotics, but are there any downsides to their use? While cats rarely have a bad reaction to probiotics, it still pays to pay close attention to the type and brand you use. Just as it’s important to pay attention to the quality of food we buy, so it’s equally important to stick to reputable, well-known supplement brands and, if in any doubt, ask your vet for recommendations before starting a new regime.