A couple of weeks back, we talked about how high protein/low carbohydrate diets in kittens altered the microbial population of the gastrointestinal tract — specifically, how eating this type of diet reduced the numbers of bacteria, Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Megasphaera , that have potential health benefits. I then got to wondering, is there a way to "have your cake (so to speak) and eat it too with regards to high protein diets and beneficial bacteria?" I think the answer is, "yes."
If you are in a position of having to feed your cat a very high protein/low carbohydrate diet (e.g., due to a diagnosis of diabetes or the need to lose weight), or choose to do so for other reasons, adding a probiotic to the food can help boost the numbers of beneficial bacteria in your cat’s gastrointestinal tract. I strongly recommend using a probiotic if a change in diet coincides with the development of diarrhea or loose stools. Several studies have shown that probiotics help cats recover from diarrhea more quickly than they do when treated with a placebo. But, even if your cat’s stools are normal, probiotics may be worth considering. Research is providing evidence that they can positively affect a pet’s overall health.
This shouldn’t be too surprising since the gut is home to unbelievable numbers of bacteria and other microorganisms (I’ve never seen measurements for cats but the numbers fall in the trillions for people). As a result, the GI tract is also the body’s largest immune organ. If the gut isn’t healthy, the rest of the body isn’t either.
You may be wondering exactly what a probiotic is. They are living microorganisms (e.g., Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria or Sacchromyces yeast) that reside naturally within the gastrointestinal tract, the numbers of which can be increased via supplementation. They compete with pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes, thereby limiting their numbers. They also produce enzymes that help cats digest food, manufacture B vitamins, and enhance the protective cellular and mucus barrier of the gut wall. It also appears that probiotics can modify an animal’s overall immune function and have a positive effect on immune-mediated and other types of disease that develop throughout the body. Research has shown a potential benefit with their use in the treatment of pancreatitis, allergies, and chronic kidney disease.
However, a couple of problems do exist with probiotic use in pets. First of all, their benefits don’t last very long after supplementation is stopped. It seems as if all the factors that influence which microorganisms thrive in an individual’s gut conspire to return the situation back to that individual’s "normal." This isn’t an issue when you’re dealing with a short term disorder, but for chronic conditions probiotic supplementation generally has to continue for the long-term. The addition of prebiotics (e.g., fructooligosaccharides, chicory, or inulin) to the diet can help in this regard. Prebiotics preferentially support the growth of probiotic microorganisms whether they are added to the GI tract via supplementation or are there naturally.
The second problem surrounding the use of probiotics is poor regulation of the pet (and human) supplement market. When scientists have looked to see if product labels accurately describe what is actually contained inside the package (e.g., large numbers of living microorganisms from a particular species), many brands have fallen short. The best way to protect yourself from the scam artists out there is to purchase probiotic supplements from companies with good reputations that have been around for a while. If a veterinarian has recommended a particular brand based on your cat’s unique situation, I’d start with that one. He or she has probably had good experiences with it for similar cases in the past.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Cat Treat by Alan C. / via Flickr