Good bacteria are essential to the health of the gut.
In recent years, the popularity of foods and supplements containing probiotics has grown amid claims that consuming these products improves health. Dr. Maureen McMichael, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, says there is good evidence to suggest that our pets might benefit in the same way.
In the 1960s, researchers coined the term probiotic, which means “for life” in Greek. And today, probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms that when given in adequate amounts, improve the microbial balance of the host’s intestines.”
Dr. McMichael says the stomach and intestines of all mammals are lined with specialized tissues that together represent the largest immune organ in the body. Hundreds of types of bacteria normally occupy the digestive system and assist in maintaining the quality and function of its inner membranes, known as GALT (gut-associated lymphoid tissue). This lining provides protection from foreign bacteria and viruses.
“The good bacteria are essential to the health of the gut. When the gut is dysfunctional or out of balance, the immune system cannot do its job properly and illness can result,” says Dr. McMichael.
Also called “beneficial bacteria,” these microbes are thought to exclude disease-causing bacteria by directly competing with them for nutrients and space in the intestinal system. Having a healthy, enriched microbial population in the gut indirectly improves the body’s response to introduced dangers as well.
Dr. McMichael, who specializes in veterinary emergency and critical care, said that a large study in Denmark using probiotics in children in day care centers revealed that probiotics reduced the incidence of diarrhea. But the more surprising finding of the study was that the kids who received probiotics also had much lower rates of upper respiratory infections, such as colds and flu. This suggests that the probiotics not only boosted the health of the gastrointestinal system, but by strengthening the entire immune system, protected children from getting other types of illnesses too.
In addition, some debilitating conditions, including Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, are alleviated with the use of probiotics in humans. Dr. McMichael thinks pets suffering similar conditions are likely to benefit from using probiotics too.
“In most instances, when we compare human and animal medical studies, it is not a good idea to assume that what’s good for people is also good for animals,” she warns. “But for probiotics, it appears to be safe to give these to your pets. Probiotic products designed specifically for pets are available on the market.”
Dr. McMichael cautions that the bacterial strains that are native to each species of animal differ, and one that is beneficial for dogs might not be safe for people and vice versa. So she reminds owners to follow the advice of their veterinarian and make sure to use a product that is intended for the specific type of pet, whether horse, rabbit, dog, cat, or other.
Dr. McMichael adds that as researchers continue to explore the scientific value of probiotics, the Association for American Feed Control Officials and the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine have established basic classification and labeling requirements for pet animal probiotics. So although large-scale studies have yet to be conducted in animals to confirm their efficacy, probiotics that are designed and labeled for pets should be safe to use and may have a positive effect on their health.
By Holly Richards