Pro- and Prebiotics - What Are They and Are They Safe for Pets?

Updated: July 13, 2016
Published: February 11, 2013
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Probiotics are all the rage. Numerous nutritional supplements, and even foods like yogurt, contain these live microorganisms (bacteria and/or yeast) that can provide health benefits when given to an animal or person. We tend to think of probiotics when considering gastrointestinal health or disease, and they certainly do play an important role in this regard.

Take a dog with diarrhea, for example. Whatever the cause — stress, dietary indiscretion, infection, antibiotic therapy, etc. — the diarrhea sometimes persists even after the inciting issue has been handled. This often results from an imbalance between the microorganisms in the gut that promote normal function and those that secrete toxins or are otherwise disruptive when they are present in larger than normal numbers. Probiotics are a way of boosting the number of "good" microorganisms that are present, thereby helping them out-compete the "bad" ones.

It also appears that probiotics may work in other ways. They seem to be able to beneficially modify immune function. Studies have shown that probiotic supplementation can help treat infections outside of the gastrointestinal tract as well as some types of allergic or inflammatory diseases. This isn’t too surprising considering that a large proportion of the body’s immune system is associated with the gut, so anything that influences the immune system could provide a more wide-spread effect.

One downside of probiotic supplementation is that the microorganisms aren’t able to effectively stay and reproduce within the gut for long periods of time. This isn’t a huge issue when you are dealing with an acute illness, say diarrhea associated with antibiotic use, but for chronic disorders probiotic supplements need to be continued long-term to reap the maximum benefits.

What About Prebiotics?

This is where prebiotics come into the picture. Prebiotics are non-digestible ingredients that support the growth of probiotic microorganisms that either reside in the gut naturally or are added via supplementation. Think of prebiotics as a way to preferentially feed the "good" microorganisms in the gut, giving them a potential advantage in their competition with the "bad" microorganisms.

Beet pulp is a commonly used prebiotic in dog foods. It is a type of carbohydrate that undergoes partial fermentation within the gut to provide food for probiotic microorganisms. Feeding your dog a food that contains a prebiotic like beet pulp is an easy way to support gastrointestinal health, add fiber to the diet, and promote overall well-being.

Look at the ingredient list on the dog food label to determine whether or not beet pulp is included. It does not need to be present in large amounts, so finding it approximately half-way down the ingredient list is perfectly appropriate. Discuss with your veterinarian how fiber in your pet's food can offer digestive benefits to your dog or cat.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

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