Probiotics for Cats: What are They and How Do They Help?

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PetMD Editorial
Published: January 05, 2017

By Nicole Pajer

What are Probiotics for Cats?

Just like in humans, the majority of a cat’s immunity resides in its digestive tract; so keeping it balanced with an array of good bacteria is a great way to ensure that your feline stays healthy. One possible way to do that is by supplementing your cat’s diet with probiotics – friendly bacteria that help to regulate digestive and overall health. These live microorganisms are believed to help treat or prevent a variety of illnesses and diseases, especially those related to the gastrointestinal system.

But how do you know if you should give your cat probiotics? What kind of probiotics should you buy for your cat and how often should you administer them? petMD reached out to an array of experts who have studied the topic to find out more about probiotics for cats.

Benefits of Probiotics for Cats

Dr. Patrick Mahaney, a Los Angeles area veterinarian and certified veterinary journalist, is definitely an advocate for feline probiotics. “I’m a big fan of probiotics as a means of hopefully helping to maintain normal gut health, not only so there are less clinical signs of digestive upset like decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, or stool changes but also in terms of helping to promote immune system health as well,” he says.

Mahaney adds that immunity for cats is closely linked to the health of the digestive tract and when the digestive tract is thrown off track, a cat’s immunity may suffer. Disorders that can cause such digestive system upset include ailments like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), infections, or a cat simply ingesting something she shouldn’t.

“That could certainly be cats that are grooming themselves excessively and ingesting too much hair or ingesting things from the environment,” says Mahaney. So for cats, probiotics can help with a variety of conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease. The veterinarian adds that IBD is a common condition that many cats develop throughout their lifetime, especially during their adult and senior years.

While the cause of IBD in some cats remains a mystery, Mahaney says that some commercial pet foods may play a part in cats developing the bowel disease. “Kibble for instance, doesn’t really exist in nature. It’s not really what cats should eat. And if they are chronically eating something that doesn’t really agree with their digestive tract, that there is a problem over time,” he says. “The cat could start vomiting or have diarrhea or not eat as well as he should. So inflammatory bowel disease is a big concern that ends up costing owners a lot of time and money to manage.”

In addition to treating IBD, probiotics are hypothesized to be able to help halt diarrhea, reseed the gut with beneficial bacteria after a pet has been on a course of antibiotics, improve digestion, and boost overall immune system. According to Richard Hill, associate professor at University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, probiotics may also “reduce the duration and slow recurrence of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis” in some feline patients.

Cat Probiotics vs. Dog Probiotics: What’s the Difference?

Cats and dogs have very different digestive systems. For instance, a cat’s small intestine is shorter than that of a canine’s, which results in a quicker transit time for digesting food. The WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition also notes that a cat has a much smaller cecum (the pouch connected to the junction of the small and large intestines) than a dog’s and the gastric mucosa (inner lining of the stomach) differs between the two species.

Mahaney notes that cats are carnivorous in nature, whereas dogs are omnivores. “Cats are meant to survive off of protein and fat, where dogs are meant to eat more of a variety including meat and protein and vegetables and fruits,” he explains. Digestion starts in the mouth and if you look at the teeth of dogs and cats, the dentition of the dog includes molars meant for chopping up plant material, whereas cats lack these types of teeth. These differences in anatomy, physiology and diet are why some veterinarians believe that cats may benefit from probiotics even more than dogs.

Can I Give my Cat Human Probiotics?

While there are no current studies that point to the fact that giving cats a probiotic supplement designed for humans is dangerous, veterinarians still urge pet parents to opt for a product that is specially designed for cats. “The microflora in a cat's small and large intestine are different than for people, so we can't assume that human probiotics will work in cats,” say Deirdre Frey, VMD with Vet at Your Door, a Portland, Maine-based veterinary home-care practice.

Types of Cat Probiotics

Cat probiotics come in a variety of forms—powders, pills, and even infused inside of treats. In order to get the largest benefit out of a probiotic supplement, Mahaney recommends opting for the highest CFU (colony forming units) that you can find. Diversity is also important. “We want to make sure that we have a diverse array of probiotics—not just one type of bacteria,” Mahaney adds.

The strains that cats tend to do best with are those of the Bifidobacterium and Enterococcus families. Bifidobacterium tends to live in the small intestine, whereas Enterococcus generally resides in the colon (large intestine). So each strain could have a different function when it comes to promoting health. Bifidobacterium is more involved with digestion and the Enterococcus aids with the formation of normal feces and helping to maintain colonic health. Mahaney says you really can’t go wrong with purchasing a product with additional bacteria strains but stresses that it’s important to opt for a supplement that contains the two bacteria mentioned above.

“Make sure there are at least two different types in there because they do jobs in different locations,” he notes. “But ideally there could be five types of Enterococcus or five different types of Bifidobacterium in there,” Mahaney adds.

How to Give Probiotics to Your Cat

While some veterinarians prescribe probiotics once a pet has an existing issue, like diarrhea, Mahaney recommends that pet parents make probiotic supplements a daily part of a cat’s health routine. “I feel that giving a daily probiotic supplement is a safe way to hopefully help deter the development of digestive problems,” he explains. “If the cat is willing to take it, it’s a pretty simple thing to do.”

Antibiotics are notorious for wiping out healthy gut flora. In order to combat this, Frey recommends giving a cat a daily dose of probiotics when a cat has been on antibiotics in order to help repopulate the digestive tract. To be proactive, pet parents can also give their cats probiotics at the same time that they start a dose of antibiotics. “The probiotics are often extended for several weeks beyond stopping the antibiotic, as it takes a long time to make those good bacteria stick,” says Frey.

In order to administer a dosage, it’s best to follow the instructions on the package. If a cat will not swallow a capsule, owners can hide it inside of a treat or pick a product that can be sprinkled on the cat’s food. Before giving your cat probiotics or other supplements, make sure to consult your veterinarian to ensure the proper dosage and type for your cat.

Risks and Considerations of Probiotics for Cats

Adverse effects of probiotics are rare in cats. Frey, however, warns that cat owners should choose their probiotic brands wisely. “The supplement industry is loosely regulated and there isn't a governing agency that requires a company to prove its label claims for amounts and strains. Companies only have to respond to complaints,” she explains. Human supplement manufacturers are required to have more oversight than veterinary ones. There is, however a veterinary organization called National Animal Supplement Council (NASC) that does provide some oversight. Frey recommends giving cats a veterinary product that has the NASC label or a product from a company that also produces human supplements and foods whenever possible.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to what works the best for your specific pet. “We know so little about probiotic and normal flora populations in animals. There is much to learn,” says Frey. “No one product works for every animal so trying different probiotics and watching for results is a good common sense approach.”

Optimum cat health starts with proper nutrition. Find out what human foods are dangerous for cats and avoid feeding them to your feline friend.