Thanks to Dannon Co. and its advertising spokeswoman Jamie Lee Curtis, TV watchers are paying closer attention to probiotics for getting an irregular GI tract back to normal. The trend extends to the veterinary clinic, too. Veterinarians are fielding more client questions about probiotics and about using the beneficial organisms to improve or maintain animal health.
The first thing a veterinarian may want to clarify is any confusion between the terms “prebiotic” and “probiotic.”
“A prebiotic is a type of soluble dietary fiber that stimulates the growth or activity of beneficial bacteria in the intestines and may improve the host’s health,” says Amy Dicke, DVM, technical services veterinarian for P&G Pet Care.
“Probiotics are live bacterial preparations containing beneficial microorganisms similar to those found naturally in people and pets and which provide health benefits,” Dr. Dicke says.
“There’s been an expansion of nutrition interest between clinic walls because we’re discovering more ways to use nutrition to improve health. Right now, veterinarians likely mention nutrition when moving a pet to a therapeutic diet, but not before.”
Specialists have debunked the idea that bacteria had to come from the same species getting the probiotic.
“The bacteria doesn’t need to be species-specific,” says Joe Bartges, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVN. “In fact, giving a variety of helpful bacteria is better.”
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics
Grace Long, DVM, MS, MBA, director of veterinary technical marketing for Nestlé Purina PetCare, advises veterinarians to remember that the ultimate goal of probiotic use in the management of GI problems is to re-establish a balanced population of gastrointestinal bacteria.
“Veterinarians are branching out with new ways to use probiotics,” Dr. Long says. “Some veterinarians use probiotics for their immune benefits. The more veterinarians experience probiotics and see the benefits, the more they’ll use them.”
While prebiotics are often incorporated into an animal’s daily diet, probiotics are especially helpful in specific scenarios, specialists say.
“Certain groups of animals would benefit most from use of probiotics,” Long says. “In addition to animals with gastrointestinal upset, puppies, kittens and older animals would benefit because of the challenges to their immune systems. The same is true for show dogs, boarded animals or animals under stress.
“Animals that are taking antibiotics can reap the benefits of using a probiotic to help rebuild colonies of good GI bacteria,” she says.
“Using a probiotic causes a shift of bacteria in the intestine, with beneficial bacteria becoming more plentiful. Probiotics can even be useful for especially gassy animals. Research by Purina has shown that animals taking a probiotic have a stronger immune response to vaccines than animals not using a probiotic.”
Prescription instructions for a probiotic are similar to those of an antibiotic, experts say. A probiotic must be used consistently during a prescribed time frame to improve an animal’s health. An animal using probiotics for an acute problem will likely see a faster benefit than an animal with a chronic problem, which can take three to four weeks to resolve.
“Sixty to 80 percent of the body’s immune system lies in the digestive tract,” Dicke says. “This means the GI function has influence on the immune system and how it reacts. A healthy GI tract will help an animal fight disease, so keeping this balance of healthy bacteria alive is an important part of overall wellness.”
Not all probiotics are created equal. Selecting a probiotic that is stable through the manufacturing process and maintains its viability after several months of storage is key to its effectiveness.
“We’ve found there’s a lot of flexibility in using a probiotic as a supplement,” Long says. “Owners don’t have to change the pet’s diet, and in cases where an animal needs a special diet, a probiotic can still be used. The microorganisms can be kept alive by packaging them in single-use sachets. Moisture in the air can kill probiotics, but the air-tight packets maintain the viability of the probiotic for at least 18 months.
Experts say consumers should be careful with manufacturers that recently jumped on the probiotics bandwagon because their products may not work as advertised.
“Clients should be advised not to buy a product said to contain probiotics based on the marketing splash,” says William Bookout, president of the National Animal Supplement Council.
Check the Number
“Look to see if the manufacturer includes a unit of measure for the number of said probiotics in the bag. When looking for quality foods and supplements, using a product of high quality, which will have more than just the basic ingredients to keep an animal alive, is always a smart move.
“A 25-pound, $35 bag of food is more than the average pet food. After everyone involved from start to finish is paid, the manufacturer isn’t making a huge profit, but the pet is benefiting greatly.”
While specialists agree that probiotics are generally safe, the focus should be on the number of probiotics in a product, the quality of the probiotic and evidence behind the proposed benefit.
“Don’t fall for unsupported claims,” Long says. “Look for a guarantee on the labeling that the manufacturer stands behind the quantity and viability of the probiotics.”
Some specialists are worried about using a probiotic when the bowel mucosa has been breached, resulting in sepsis, but Susan Wynn, DVM, of Georgia Veterinary Specialists in Sandy Springs, Ga., says she doesn’t follow that train of thought. She says the benefits of probiotic use outweigh the risks.
“Immune-suppressed animals have become more active and bright after using a probiotic,” Wynn says. “Animals with atopy can benefit from using a probiotic to reduce inflammation. I feel comfortable using probiotics for more than just GI upset and use them preventatively in some situations.
“I think probiotic use preventatively could reduce the need for antibiotics. Pet food companies are leading the way on research on this.”
Still, others advise caution.
“Intestinal upset can result if too much of a probiotic is given,” says Dr. Bartges, a professor of medicine and nutrition and the Acree Endowed Chair of Small Animal Research at the University of Tennessee. “Probiotics are generally safe, but some human studies suggest immune-suppressed people can develop septicemia.”
Brands With Clout
Relying on a brand with proven industry clout can give peace of mind to a veterinarian making probiotic suggestions. For instance:
• Purina makes Fortiflora, which contains the lactic acid bacteria Enterococcus faecium SF68.
• Iams Veterinary Forumlas produces ProstoraMax, a chewable probiotic containing canine-derived bifidalis.
• Nutramax manufacturs Proviable-DC, a multistrain probiotic that contains seven key strains for restoring intestinal microfloral balance.
Consumers looking to buy a pet food or supplement containing a probiotic or prebiotic may have been foiled by the package labeling, which until recently wasn’t legally permitted to use the terms “probiotic” or “prebiotic.”
“The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine said the words ‘prebiotic’ and ‘probiotic’ were considered drug terms when used in veterinary medicine,” the NASC’s Bookout says. “Supplements and foods containing probiotics would label them ‘direct-fed microbials’ or ‘digestive enzymes,’ which to the average consumer doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“Not allowing these terms was a disservice to consumers. In April the Association of American Feed Control Officials helped make a case as to why the appropriate terminology is prebiotic and probiotic.”
Prebiotics and probiotics can be used together, which is called symbiotic. When considering using the two in supplement form, many experts say, the prebiotic is a waste of space and is easier to achieve through food inclusion.
“Research isn’t readily available to support every potential use of probiotics in animals, but veterinarians should remain open to benefits outside of a diarrhea remedy,” says Wynn, the Georgia veterinarian. “Clients will continue to demand probiotics and the industry will continue to find ways to use them.”