The poop on probiotics and prebiotics
Turn on the television, listen to the radio, or surf the internet and you’ll likely find stories, ads and blogs about probiotics and prebiotics. Although the potential benefits of probiotics and prebiotics have been touted for more than a century, an explosion of products has hit the market in the last two decades in both human and veterinary medicine.
As part of the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, we are tracking probiotic and prebiotic administration in our study population, which will allow researchers an unprecedented look at the effect of probiotics and prebiotics in this closely followed cohort. But just what are probiotics and prebiotics, and what are their roles in the gastrointestinal tract?
A widely accepted definition of a probiotic is “live microorganisms that confer a health benefit on the host when administered in adequate amounts.” Prebiotics are defined as “nondigestible food ingredients that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines.”
Prebiotic might be an unfamiliar term, but most of us already are acquainted with many types of prebiotics. One of the most common prebiotics is dietary fiber. Bacteria use indigestible fiber as fuel, and the byproducts of this process are not only good for our gastrointestinal tracts but, in many cases, they are beneficial for our canine friends, too.
Synbiotics are combinations of probiotics and prebiotics in one supplement, or foods that should be ingested together. Yogurt and honey is an example of a synbiotic. Beans and pickles is another! Synbiotics are becoming popular because they combine probiotics and prebiotics into a single, convenient package (although beans and pickles might be a tough sell).
By definition, probiotics must confer a health benefit on the host. Studying something as complex as the interaction between probiotics and the gastrointestinal tract has been difficult, but recently developed tools make studying gastrointestinal bacteria easier. These advances also make it simpler to study the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics.
Results from a handful of new studies, including some funded by Morris Animal Foundation, are promising. One small study showed probiotics alone were just as effective as steroid and antibiotic therapy in reducing signs of inflammatory bowel disease in dogs. Evidence also suggests probiotics are beneficial in dogs with food allergies. Other studies show probiotics might be helpful in cases of non-specific diarrhea, such as when a dog eats something they shouldn’t. Fiber supplementation (a prebiotic) has long been advocated for dogs with certain types of diarrhea, as well as for diseases such as pancreatic inflammation.
It’s important to note that not all probiotics may be beneficial. More research is needed to determine which “bacteria cocktail” is most beneficial for dogs, and which health conditions may be helped with probiotic supplementation. However, veterinary gastroenterologists remain optimistic that these products hold promise in the treatment of many diseases of dogs.