By Ann Hohenhaus, DVM
The yogurt aisle in the grocery store has become intimidating. Although I have my favorites, most of the little cartons now seem to be claiming health benefits beyond providing nutrition. Labels and advertising campaigns extol the benefits of probiotics and prebiotics in our diets. But what are they and how do they help aid in our health? And, could these aids be beneficial to our pets?
To start, pre- and probiotics are classified as functional foods since the food has a function other than a nutritional one.
Prebiotics are food for beneficial bacteria and these compounds are not digested, they are fermented and enhance growth of good bacteria. Prebiotics consist of fiber, which serves as nutrition for the millions of bacteria residents in our (and our pet’s) intestinal tract, promoting the growth of good bacteria, which in turn promotes intestinal health. Reports indicate prebiotics improve colitis symptoms, strengthen the immune system, and prevent colon cancer. Common foods such as whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, and artichokes are considered prebiotics. Food may also have a prebiotic fiber as an additive.
Probiotics are the good bacteria themselves and they may occur naturally in some foods or be used to fortify others. Probiotic yogurts contain live cultures of good bacteria designed to repopulate the intestinal flora to generally promote digestive health or to be used after a disease or medication has disrupted the normal balance of intestinal bacteria. For example, Bifidobacterium lactis is a component of a very popular yogurt promoted to improve digestive health. Lactobacillus is another common probiotic bacteria.
You may not know it, but your pet may already be receiving prebiotics in your pet’s food as treatment of gastrointestinal upset. At least two pet food companies, Iams and Purina, add prebiotics to both dog and cat foods. Iams uses fructooligosaccharides derived from beet pulp in some of its tummy-friendly foods and Purina adds aleurone derived from wheat.
In addition to recommending my patients’ owners visit the yogurt aisle to help combat tummy upset from antibiotic administration, I can also prescribe probiotics specifically designed for pets. One such product contains two probiotic bacteria: Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus in a tasty powdered form. The other contains a different organism, Bifidobacterium animalis in a chewable tablet. Both have helped to resolve diarrhea in patients of mine.
Veterinary use of probiotics is not limited to just dogs and cats. The intestinal bacteria of Guinea pigs and rabbits are uniquely sensitive to antibiotics. Following antibiotic treatment, overgrowth of a bad bacteria known as Clostridium occurs. The AMC’s exotic pet specialists commonly prescribe a probiotic containing yeast from tropical fruits, Saccharomyces boulardii, to combat this problem.
If you have a pet with recurrent stomach problems, ask your veterinarian about pre- and probiotics.