As you learn to care for your dog naturally, you keep discovering more options to support his health holistically. But sometimes it can get confusing.
One topic that can leave dog owners a bit mystified is the difference between probiotics and prebiotics.
You probably know that probiotics are important to health. But what are prebiotics and do you need to give your dog those too?
Let’s break them down to help clarify things:
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria like Bacillus coagulans, Bifidus spp. or Acidophilus that work with the microflora, aka “good” bacteria, living in the gut. Together, they play critical roles in the breakdown and digestion of food and help keep bad bugs like E. coli in check.
Probiotics help repopulate the intestine with healthy bacteria and there is growing research indicating they boost the immune system in the digestive tract and the body. Probiotics help maintain the mucosal barrier and enhance cellular repair.
They can be given via food or supplements, food being the preferred method. Dairy based products like kefir and live yogurt are some examples you’re probably familiar with. Sometimes it’s best to avoid dairy for dogs, and there are some non-dairy probiotic options, like water kefir, microalgae and sauerkraut.[Related: Not sure what to feed? Click here to learn more about non-dairy probiotic foods]
So, should all dogs get probiotics?
Research shows probiotics can support the immune system so you can give them to your dog to support general health. Probiotics can also help your dog get over digestive upsets, and they can be helpful during stressful times, including weaning, boarding, agility trials and when traveling. And when given in whole food form, it’s hard to go wrong.
When you’re using natural remedies for your dog, it’s almost always possible to avoid antibiotics altogether. But if you do have to use them in an emergency, be sure to give probiotics as well, to keep good bacteria present. Give the probiotic at a different time of day than the antibiotic. Continue giving probiotics after antibiotic use to help with the rebalancing of gut bacteria.
Prebiotics are food ingredients that travel undigested to the colon where they ferment and are converted into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, acting as a source of energy for colon cells and preserving electrolyte and fluid balance; this allows the intestine to move properly. When present in the bowels, prebiotics can promote and support healthy digestive flora.
Since prebiotics are essentially feeding microflora, it’s best to use them in combination with probiotics to support the growth of good bacteria in your dog’s gut.
One common prebiotic source is fructooligosaccharides (FOS). Beet pulp is another well known prebiotic, however, some dogs don’t process beet pulp well and may suffer from bloating, nausea and flatulence. Raw garlic and dandelion greens are other good sources of prebiotics.[Related: Worried about feeding garlic to your dog? Click here to read this]
On the downside, there is some controversy about whether prebiotics can also potentially feed harmful intestinal bacteria as well as the good bacteria, which could contribute to digestive disorders.
So, if you decide to give prebiotic foods a try, ease into feeding them gradually to see how your dog responds. If he seems to thrive on a healthy dose of prebiotic-rich foods combined with probiotic-rich ingredients, then keep feeding them!
Greg Tilford is a well-known expert, author, consultant and teacher in the field of veterinary botanical medicine.
Lisa Brienen DVM, CVH is a holistic veterinarian at Mercy Vet Clinic in Mercer Island, WA.