Probiotics for dogs are being talked about more frequently than ever as it seems more people are now taking the supplement to improve their own gut health. So, it got us thinking: can canine probiotics improve your dog's well-being too?
When my youngest dog was around 2, he kept being sick. He wasn’t ill, it was acid reflux, but I started looking at new ways to help him prevent it happening. I’ve switched his diet periodically, never convinced I’d found the right one for him, and while the problem disappeared for a while, it’s never disappeared completely - in fact, some diets made it worse.
I had a little experience with probiotics before. When my oldest dog, Mia, had cancer she had to take them and then more recently when she had IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) she had to take them again. So I’ve seen some of their benefits firsthand but not knowing enough about how they worked and what the telltale signs of a good probiotic for dogs are, I couldn’t work out if they might work for Chris or how to choose the right one to try.
With the help of Richard Lewis at The Petcare Factory, here’s what I discovered about probiotics for dogs.
Like us, our dog’s bodies are full of billions of friendly microorganisms (bacteria and yeasts) and their role is to help us digest food, create nutrients and vitamins and reinforce our immune system.
What is a Good Probiotic for Dogs?
Richard begins by telling us how good probiotics work.
“Probably one of the most important properties a probiotic must possess is the ability of the organism to be able to survive the journey through the various parts of the digestive system.
“The gastrointestinal tract is an extremely harsh environment, in dogs and cats, and helps support a diet which is predominantly made up of raw meat, bone and fat. The stomach is highly acidic, with a pH which can fall to levels between one and two after the consumption of food.
“This low pH, together with the contraction and relaxation of the stomach muscles, a process called peristalsis, helps break down the raw meat and bone into a soft digestible material, called chyme. The low pH is highly effective at killing bacteria, particularly potentially pathogenic bacteria which could be harmful to your pet.
“These are conditions which are consistent with the requirements of carnivores and the scavenging nature of animals like dogs. The environment is also hostile to beneficial bacteria, so the probiotic elements must be able to tolerate the low pH, together with high concentrations of bile as they move through the system.”
How Probiotics are Made for Dogs
As each probiotic strain can offer different health benefits and work in various ways, a blend of several high-quality strains of bacteria in a product will provide a broader range of support for your pet’s health, which is why some, like Richard’s own Advanced Probiotic Plus, has five which can help to combat multiple conditions.
Here's the science behind probiotics:
“There are several different mechanisms by which probiotics can work, once they reach the intestines, which helps to prevent the spread of pathogenic bacteria.
“One of the methods is by a process called competitive exclusion. This method is where a healthy population of beneficial bacteria actively competes for colonisation sites, present on the gastrointestinal wall.
“This action prevents harmful bacteria from occupying these sites which would then allow them to multiply to proportions which would be detrimental to an animal’s health. The probiotic microorganisms are very efficient at competing for the available adhesion sites in the gastrointestinal tract."
The Rise of Probiotics for Dogs
Humans have used probiotics for several years now and they're becoming increasingly popular in tackling many disorders common in dogs.
There are many types of naturally occurring bacteria found in the digestive system. Richard tells us some are classed as beneficial, or good bacteria, and not only help with digestion, produce vitamins and minerals, but also break down viruses and other pathogens that can cause disease.
He says, "They line the digestive tract to protect it from parasites, toxins from food, chemicals and other damaging substances. Furthermore, in the digestive system, some of the bacteria are classed as harmful and these may leave the body susceptible to many types of diseases and other adverse conditions.
"In a healthy system, the body limits the number of harmful bacteria populating the gut and encourages the growth and spread of friendly bacteria. However, there are many conditions and situations which can compromise this delicate balance, leading to an excess of harmful bacteria; this imbalance is called dysbiosis."
Because of their growing popularity with people, it has been known for some time how probiotics help with the immune system, gastrointestinal issues and allergies, but as more and more research is done, other potential benefits of these types of supplements are being discovered.
Richard explains some of the scientific studies going on to find out more about additional ways probiotics work.
He says, "There's evidence and ongoing exploration into the benefits related to urinary health, chronic fatigue, arthritis, thyroid imbalances, atopic diseases, oral health, anxiety, obesity - it is an ever-increasing list. Although much of the research has been specifically related to human health, it is not unreasonable to assume that it will not provide similar health benefits to our pets."
How Probiotics Can Help Dogs with Digestive Problems
Dogs can suffer a large range of intestinal disorders that we often recognise first and foremost as human conditions. We asked Richard to explain some of the more common ones, such as IBS and how probiotics might help dogs who suffer.
He says, "I often receive emails asking about how our probiotic product can help treat or control their pet’s digestive conditions. These include conditions such as sensitive stomachs, IBS, food allergies, yeast infections, skin problems, together with numerous other complaints."
Christopher’s acid reflux could be solved by probiotics by making his reactions to food more stable.
But Richard tells us there are several possible symptoms which a dog might display, some more subtle than Christopher’s, that mean dogs could benefit from the supplement too.
He says, "Dogs which have bad diarrhoea, possibly alternating with constipation, constant loose stools, or frequent sickness after eating certain kinds of food show indications of a condition which may benefit from probiotics.
"In the first instance, for a dog displaying any abnormal symptoms, I always recommend that you take them to the vets in order to get an accurate diagnosis of the issue. All of the symptoms mentioned above can be a sign of an intestinal problem and probiotics may help your dog, but they are also many other things that could be wrong.
"It is quite common for dogs not to display any physical signs which can be easily picked up on, or only show symptoms which are less obvious. Some of these signs include constant itching and scratching, dry and flaky skin, reoccurring ear infections, the presence of undigested food in the dog's stool, bad breath, foul body smell, excess intestinal gas and bloating. Again, many of these conditions could have several other causes so you should always consult with a vet in the first instance."
4 Main Reasons a Dog Might Benefit from Probiotics
Even with a healthy dog, it is easy to disrupt the natural healthy balance of bacteria in the intestinal tract, Richard tells us.
"Diet can play a big part in digestive health so it is important to feed your dog the right kinds of food. It is believed that a diet which is largely based on a limited range of highly processed foods, rather than a healthy, balanced one, can significantly reduce the population of good bacteria in the gut.”
Learning what to look for, or avoid, on pet food labels can be hugely useful for this and many other reasons.
Richard believes the use of modern, processed pet foods can place a strain on both a dog’s digestive and immune system because of the ingredients - namely, carbohydrates, which slow down the food’s processing speed inside the gut, and preservatives, which allows the food to sit longer on supermarket shelves.
“Modern, processed pet foods are generally loaded with carbohydrates, which can cause increased bacterial fermentation, a higher pH, and decreased intestinal transit speed. These properties allow toxic metabolites to remain in the intestines longer and promote inflammation.
"Carbohydrates are the preferred food source of many pathogenic bacterial and fungal species. These types of food are also full of additional chemicals which are designed to make the food more palatable and have a longer shelf life.
“By looking at the ingredients found in pet food, you will often find preservatives, dyes, emulsifiers, surfactants, additives, and flavourings, many of which are toxins and can all negatively impact the health of the digestive system.
“Even the more natural ingredients can contain traces of chemicals in the form of herbicides especially when the formulation of food includes grains or vegetables. One of the most widely used herbicides in use is called glyphosate, and although the United States is by far the primary user of the chemical, it is also common in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. As well as being used on crops, it is also an ingredient found in commercial weed-killers and lawn foods. Although its primary use is as a herbicide, the patent also classes it as a broad spectrum antiparasitic and antibiotic, so can kill off any forms of bacteria, both harmful and beneficial, present in the body."
Research has shown that a dog’s microflora inside the gut can become disrupted by factors including worming, flea and tick products, a lack of exercise and stress.
“Stress can be a result of separation anxiety, travel, being in unfamiliar surroundings, or a change in routine. It is common in dogs involved in field trials, where they spend the day working in the field, in an intense environment, exposed to other dogs, often in strange surroundings and affects the movement and contractions in the gastrointestinal tract which causes a more alkaline pH in the gastrointestinal tract, which is the preferred environment for the harmful bacteria."
Even your dog's drinking water can pose a risk, according to Richard.
“Nowadays, chlorine is a disinfectant commonly used by the water industry to maintain hygienic conditions within the public water supply. In 1897 the town of Maidstone, England was the first place to have its entire water supply treated with chlorine, and since then this has been adopted nationwide. Although this does have its benefits, it is a cheap solution which can also destroy the beneficial bacteria present in the body along with the pathogens it is designed to eliminate.”
Richard explains that in most cases of intestinal problems, the root cause is usually diet or medication, which can be relatively easy to counteract.
He explained how the gut reacts to antibiotics, and how that can sometimes play a role in disrupting a dog’s system.
“By far the most common reason which can cause a bacterial imbalance is through the use of antibiotics. Usually when an infection, caused by bacteria, is the suspected cause of an illness, but the responsible pathogen is unidentified.
This approach involves the administration of broad-spectrum antibiotics which are effective against a wide range of infectious agents. These are by far the most common type of antibiotic prescribed in veterinary health. The primary disadvantage of broad-spectrum antibiotics is that they make no distinction between the beneficial and pathogenic bacteria.”
Which essentially means that although these are necessary and useful at what they are designed to do, they can have a dramatic effect on the level of beneficial bacteria in the body.
"Medications such antibiotics, steroids and some types of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can all kill off good bacteria, which can lead to other consequences. For example, a dog's which finishes a cause of antibiotics is often open to some secondary infection since the there is an insufficient level of beneficial bacteria to help prevent infection.
"Additionally, dogs are natural scavengers, and will often find and eat the unhealthiest of things whilst out on their walks which make them more prone to all types of illness."
Probiotics have many benefits for dogs as well as humans. If your dog's friendly microorganisms inside the gut have been disrupted, probiotics certainly can help and reinforce their immune system.
However, if your dog has ongoing problems, there is always a chance that the problem is down to something more severe which needs closer investigation, so speak with your vet if you have any concerns.