What are Probiotics and are they Beneficial for Dogs?
Did you know that the majority of your dog’s immune system actually resides in their digestive system?
The immune system of dogs plays a vital role in their health and longevity. While this is common knowledge among pet parents, what many fail to realize is that about 70% of a dog’s immune system is composed of a thriving microbiome which consists of microbes that are both helpful and potentially harmful in the gastrointestinal tract.
How Big is the Microbiome?
The microbiome consists of trillions of microorganisms (also called microbiota or microbes) of thousands of different species. These include bacteria, fungi, yeasts, parasites, and viruses. In a healthy dog, these “bugs” coexist peacefully, with the largest numbers found in the small and large intestines but also throughout the dog's body. The microbiome is even now considered and described as a supporting organ because it plays so many key roles in promoting the smooth daily operations of the dog's body.
This means that the healthier a dog’s gut microbiome is, the healthier he will be, because the immune system helps the body combat disease.
The integrity and function of a dogs immune system can be adversely affected by many factors, with most falling under several forms of stressors-- those that are naturally-occurring or those that are age- or lifestyle-related. When a dog’s immune system is stressed or compromised, it can result in increased susceptibility to infections and other disorders, including cancer.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why gut microbiome health is crucial to a dog’s longterm health and well-being.
What Factors Affect the Health of a Dog’s Microbiome?
The dog's gastrointestinal tract microbiome is composed of both friendly (beneficial) bacteria and pathogenic (bad) bacteria. The good bacteria promotes the optimum function of the digestive system and, consequently the immune system. On the other hand, bad bacteria disrupts gastrointestinal tract function and compromises immune system integrity and function.
A healthy gut microbiome simply means that there is a harmonious balance between the good and bad bacterial populations. Problems start to occur when there is the overgrowth of pathogenic (bad) bacteria in the gut. The imbalance can often cause problems to develop in the gastrointestinal tract, eventually creating an environment for negative health issues to develop as a result of the immune system’s inability to function normally.
Common Factors that Influence the Microbial Population in the Dog's Gut
- Switching your pet to a new diet without a proper transition period.
- Travel stress
- Spending time in a boarding kennel (stress)
- Poor quality diet
- A sudden change in routine (stress)
- Moving to a new home (stress)
- Being in unfamiliar places or people (stress)
- Ingestion of spoiled or bacterial contaminated foods
- Ingestion of potentially toxic substances such as dark chocolate, insecticides or pesticides
- Diseases affecting the gastrointestinal tract, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Pica (eating items that are not considered as food such as rocks, cat litter, feces, etc.)
- Diets low in Prebiotic fibres. Prebiotics are compounds in diets that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi in the gastrointestinal tract. Prebiotics can alter the composition of organisms in the gut microbiome.
You may have noticed that these factors are sources of physical or emotional stress. When your dog is exposed to any of these type of stressors, the balance of the beneficial and bad bacterial population in the gastrointestinal tract can be affected. This can eventually trigger a variety of issues affecting digestive tract function such as poor absorption of nutrients, diarrhea, leaky gut syndrome, etc. These nutritional problems can pave the way for a host of other negative health issues.
Negative Effect of Antibiotics on the Gut Microbiome
In addition to physical and emotional stressors, antibiotics can do very major damage to the microbial population in the dog’s gut. While these drugs are formulated to kill bad bacteria that cause illness, their action is most often not selective to only kill the bad bacteria. This means that antibiotics can kill both bad and good bacteria in the gut. Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that antibiotics are continuously overused and abused in us humans, livestock production systems and our pets.
Supplementing Your Pet’s Diet with Beneficial Bacteria
To help to always maintain a healthy population of beneficial bacteria and promote good strong immune system function, it is highly recommended that dog's diets are supplemented with beneficial bacteria. These supplemented bacteria are called “Probiotics”. Probiotics are a combination of live beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally live in the dog's gastrointestinal tract. A thriving population of good bacteria will discourage bad bacteria from overwhelming the gastrointestinal tract and causing disease.
What Happens When There is Balance Between Good and Bad Bacteria in the Dog’s Gastrointestinal Tract?
When there is a harmonious balance between good and bad bacteria/yeasts in the dog’s gut, symbiosis (living together/well balanced) can occur, offering multiple benefits to the dog. These benefits include:
- There will be efficient absorption and processing of nutrients like proteins including those nutrients from plants in the diet.
- The population of the bad potentially harmful bacteria is also kept in check / balance.
- Toxins in the digestive tract are filtered out as the healthy gastrointestinal tract is highly selective about absorbing vital nutrients and filtering out non-nutrients, including toxins that may stress the liver function and cause cancers.
Are Probiotics Mainly Beneficial for Issues Affecting the Digestive Tract?
Studies performed with humans and pets were able to clearly show that the beneficial effects of probiotics extend beyond the gastrointestinal tract to a wide range of positive health issues being better manged including:
- Liver problems
Studies also show no side effects associated with probiotic therapy in dogs. Probiotics are also easy to administer in pets.
How To Select a Probiotic for your Dog?
- Choose dog-specific probiotic supplements
- NOT all Probiotics are created equal.
The best way to ensure that your dog is receiving a high-quality probiotic is to choose those that are made by reputable manufacturers. Steer clear of probiotics for humans or be extremely selective of those that are incorporated in commercial pet food formulas, most probiotics sprayed on kibble are DOA (Dead On Arrival). Humans and pets have specific bacterial strains that are unique and optimal to each of their own digestive systems. Look for probiotics that contain specific strains of bacteria that are beneficial for pets. Common beneficial bacteria that are normally found in the canine gut include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium lactis, Bifidobacterium breve, Bacillus subtilis, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Saccharomyces boulardii and Enterococcus faecium.
- Must contain live bacteria / yeast
For the bacteria /yeast in the probiotic to reproduce, they must be live. Viability is very important when it comes to probiotics. This is one important reason why probiotics in commercial pet foods are most often not of any value as they are DOA (Dead On Arrival). Many of the live bacteria spray on applied to kibble are killed from the hight heat temperatures used during the kibble drying manufacturing process.
Other important characteristics of high-quality pet probiotics include the following:
- Should have a number of different types and strains
- Contains enough live microorganisms CFU (Colony Forming Units) of each type to effectively colonize the gastrointestinal tract.
- Easy to administer to pets.
- Be LIVE microorganisms in the product should be able to survive the stomach’s acidic low Ph environment.
- The product should remain shelf stable under normal storage conditions.