Should I Give My Dog Probiotics?

Every pet parent just wants what's best for their beloved fur child. When it comes to health-related issues, we tend to assume that the "best" is synonymous with "closest to what actual humans get." But is that the bar we should be using to measure pet health? The probiotic movement is going strong among us mostly-hairless bipedals, but should we be feeding Jamie Lee Curtis' favorite yogurt to our pets, too?

Here's everything you need to know about if you should be giving your dog probiotics.

What are probiotics?

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Let's start with the basics. What are probiotics, exactly? According to the National Institutes of Health:

Probiotics are live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body.

In other words: probiotics are the healthy, helpful bacteria that live in your gut.

Where can you find probiotics?

Again, according to the National Institutes of Health, probiotics are found in yogurt and other fermented foods, dietary supplements, and beauty products.

Are probiotics safe for dogs?

Probiotics are beyond plentiful in mother nature, and not just in humans, either. In fact, there are billions of them in the gastrointestinal system of all animals. So, in a general sense, yes, since pets' bodies are naturally home to at least some probiotics. These helpful little bits of bacterial serve all kinds of important functions in animals' bodies, from aiding in digestion, to warding off potentially harmful pathogens to making nutrients and vitamins and boosting the immune system.

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Can you give dogs the same probiotics you would buy for humans?

While dogs' bodies are definitely equipped to handle probiotics, experts don't recommend giving your furbabies the probiotics that are on the market for humans, since humans and animals have such different digestive systems. The differences between the dog and human stomach, for example, are significant—we have different levels of stomach acids, different digestive enzymes, and and different naturally-occurring probiotic strains. Instead of sharing your own probiotics with a pet, shop for something specially formulated for your animal.

What's the difference between human probiotics and pet probiotics?

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When you take probiotics, whether as a supplement or by consciously increasing your yogurt intake, what you're essentially doing is helping your body replenish the healthy bacteria your gut needs to do its job in tip top shape. The basic idea is the same for pets, but, of course, probiotic supplements made for our furriest friends consist of good bacteria that naturally occurs in (and is important to) the animal's health. While some probiotics and bacterial overlap or crossover easily between humans and dogs, the differences in the make up of our gut bacteria are significant enough that it's worth looking for a pet-specific product, if for no other reason than to increase the supplements' effectiveness.

Probiotic products for dogs, for example, typically contain bacteria types common to dogs, including:

  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Enterococcus faecium
  • Bifidobacterium lactis
  • Lactobacillus casei
  • Bifidobacterium breve

What are the benefits of probiotics?

Even though it's a good idea to buy probiotics specifically formulated for your pet rather than giving them human probiotics, the health benefits for animals who take probiotics are actually pretty similar to those enjoyed by humans who do the same.

In both humans and dogs, probiotics promote good gut health by aiding in digestion and can be used to treat or preventing certain digestive issues, like diarrhea. Probiotics also produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which help to stop the growth and activity of harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella.

Why do some pets need probiotic supplements?

Even though the good bacteria we've been talking about occurs naturally, some dogs (just like some of their human pet parents) need a little extra help replenishing it. According to the American Kennel Club, the issue is that sometimes beneficial microbes are damaged or destroyed, which can cause stomach upset and a general decline in health.

For animals, probiotics are usually prescribed as part of a plan to maintain a "desirable intestinal microbial balance," according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. Stress or illness can throw off the balance between the healthy and disease-causing microbes that live in the gut, leading to diarrhea, gas, cramping, and bad breath, among other things.

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A lot of different things can cause an imbalance of the good and bad bacteria in your pet's gut. In some cases, it could be an infection or parasite, but other causes include stress (which leads many shelter dogs to experience digestive issues), diet, certain medications, and, in some cases, just plain old age.

What forms are pet probiotics available in?

Like people probiotics, pet probiotics are available in a range forms, including:

  • Yogurt or kefir with live cultures
  • Powders
  • Capsules
  • Chews
  • Dog foods

Things to keep in mind when buying pet probiotics

Experts say that preparing for you pet probiotic purchase is important. After all, you're not just buying a vitamin or a toy; you're buying something that's tiny, alive, and extremely delicate. In addition to finding the right probiotic product, containing the right bacteria types for your pet's needs, you'll also want to look for a probiotic with bacteria that will be able to survive a trip through your pet's digestive tract, experts say.

"When you look at a probiotic, you are looking at live bacteria that have been adapted to living within the GI tract," Gail Czarnecki-Maulden, Ph.d., a senior research nutritionist for Nestle Purina and one of the developers of FortiFlora, explained on the Canine Health Foundation podcast. "You don't want to buy your probiotics when it's 110 degrees outside and you go to the mall for four hours and your probiotics are sitting in a hot car for five or six hours. It's not likely that the probiotics will survive."

Conclusion

While most healthy dogs don't need probiotics, you can safely give probiotics to dogs. However, make sure you give them probiotics that are specifically formulated for dogs, not the kind that are formulated for humans. Probiotics may be helpful to dogs who have digestive issues.