Many people automatically associate the word ‘bacteria' with upset stomachs and icky infections, but the truth is that not all bacteria are bad for health. The trillions of gut-friendly bacteria naturally present in the digestive tract of all animals, known as the ‘microbiome', is vital to our very survival.
Unfortunately, though, our beneficial gut-dwelling critters don't always have a happy existence. Whether it's due to a bad diet, medications, or bad lifestyle choices, sometimes these friendly bugs struggle to maintain the balance required to keep things running smoothly – with potentially disastrous results for our health.
While most people will have heard about probiotics for human tummy troubles, many fail to realize the same is true for our beloved pets. Yep, that's right. Your dog has his own crucial colony of bacteria in his gut too!
In this article, we examine how probiotics work, why your dog may need them, and how best to introduce them into your dog's diet to keep him happy and healthy.
What Are Probiotics?
Helpful bacteria play a critical role in the digestion of food, assimilation of energy, the destruction of disease-causing cells, and work to maintain the positive balance against harmful bacteria in the gut microbiome. If this balance becomes disrupted (known as dysbiosis) either through illness, bad diet, antibiotic use, or stress, it can have a serious impact on overall health.
Probiotics are formulas or foods that contain colonies of live bacteria that are naturally present in the body. They support the correct balance of the gut microbiome and, therefore, confer a health benefit on the host when consumed in adequate amounts.
Probiotics can be ingested in the form of a supplement, or by incorporating certain gut-friendly foods into the diet.
Why Do Dogs Need Probiotics?
You've likely heard about probiotics for humans, but it may surprise you to learn that there is actually very little difference between your microbiome and your dog's.
A recent study found that, when they compared the microbiome of humans, dogs, pigs, and mice, the human and canine microbiome were the most similar. And just like humans, the balance of your dog's gut bacteria can affect almost every other biological function in their body, perhaps even impacting their mental health.
Before the age of domestication and canned, processed dog meat, wild dogs would roam their territory hunting for food. Once they made a kill, they would also eat the intestines of their prey, consuming the gut bacteria and probiotics, fermented vegetation inside.
While wild canines enjoyed an organic, raw diet – nowadays, the use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry is widespread. Traces of these antibiotics are passed down the food chain and end up in commercial pet foods (as well as on your own dinner plate).
By their very nature, antibiotics act like a carpet bomb to the bacteria in the gut microbiome. They wipe out both good and bad bacteria in equal measure, thus leading to potentially troublesome imbalances with damaging effects on the health of your pup.
So, with all the hype around probiotics for humans, it's crucial that we consider the gut health of our canine friends, too! By incorporating probiotics into your dog's diet, you can help to ensure their microbiome remains balanced and they stay happy and healthy.
Benefits of Probiotics for Dogs
Now that we have established the importance of a balanced microbiome to your dog's health, let's take a look at some of the benefits of using probiotics in your dog's diet.
The biggest and most important job of your dog's microbiome is to support their immune system. It achieves this by helping to create a mucous membrane which runs the length of the intestinal tract. Within this membrane is ‘gut-associated lymphoid tissue' or ‘GALT'.
The GALT and the microbiome work together to defend your pup from illness and infection. Critical immune cells, such as lymphocytes, which are crucial for fending off nasty antigens, are located in the GALT.
If the balance of bacteria in your dog's gut becomes disrupted, this can lead to a weakening of the immune system and increase the potential for disease. Including probiotics in your pups' diet will help to ensure his natural defenses are on top form.
Maintaining the proper balance of gut bacteria in your dogs' microbiome is essential for healthy digestion. These friendly bacteria produce special enzymes and short-chain fatty acids that work to help them digest food effectively and efficiently absorb all the nutrients into the bloodstream.
A healthy microbiome is also important in the production of essential vitamins, which are crucial for good health. Vitamins such as B12 and Thiamine are required for effective immune function and energy production. These vitamins are created by the bacteria in the gut, so an imbalance in intestinal bacteria may lead to vitamin deficiencies and low energy levels.
Therefore, if your dog is suffering from excessive gas, diarrhea, constipation, or lethargy, it could be caused by an imbalance in their microbiome. Probiotics will help to restore the balance and keep them feeling their best.
Reduction of Skin Allergies
If your pup suffers from dry, itchy skin – probiotics may be able to help.
Research has shown that an imbalance in gut bacteria can lead to chronic inflammation of the gut lining, which ‘over-excites' the immune system and causes it to react with an increased inflammatory response to any irritations that occur on the skin. These irritations could be the result of anything from flea bites to pollen or your new household cleaning product.
Intense inflammatory responses to skin irritations usually present as atopic dermatitis – an unpleasant condition that causes very itchy, dry, flaky, and sore skin. In many cases, dogs will continuously lick and chew themselves in an attempt to relieve the itch, often breaking the skin open, which then becomes vulnerable to infection.
If your dog suffers from skin allergies, incorporating probiotics into your dog's diet could help to balance their gut bacteria and reduce any overactive immune responses – thus bringing your pooch some welcome relief.
It may sound surprising, but there is emerging evidence that the health of the gut microbiome is directly related to our mood and mental health. This correlation is known as the ‘gut-brain axis'.
It is believed that both the bacteria in the gut and the brain can communicate with one another via nerve pathways and changes in hormone levels. This way, the brain is able to send out a signal to the gut that it requires more food or demand a response from the immune system.
Research into the intricacies of how this works is still in its early stages, but scientists are sure that the connection does exist. For example, one study found that, when animals are exposed to stress, the types of bacteria present in the gut change in response.
The same is true in humans who suffer from depression. So, when we consider the close similarities between the human and canine microbiome, it's likely that this will be the case for our dogs, too.
Therefore, using probiotics to restore or maintain the healthy balance of gut bacteria may help to keep your pup feeling his best self.
Natural Dietary Sources of Probiotics for Dogs
Are you ready to start introducing probiotics to your dog's diet?
Whether you feed your pup raw dog food recipes or commercially canned meat, here are the best probiotic foods you can add to their meals to keep their gut healthy and balanced.
Natural, unsweetened, and unflavored yogurt is a fantastic source of probiotic bacteria. When choosing yogurt for your dog, be sure to look for products that contain “live” or “active” cultures. This should be clearly displayed on the packaging.
Made from curdled milk, natural yogurt has a tangy taste and thick, yet smooth texture which most dogs find palatable. Simply add one or two tablespoons per day to your dog's meal to keep their gut bacteria happy.
Kefir is a cultured, fermented milk drink that is jam-packed with probiotics. It is usually made from cow's milk, but it can also be made from non-dairy alternatives such as coconut milk.
Because kefir has a more liquid texture than yogurt, you may have to thoroughly mix or blend it into your pup's food to make sure he consumes it. Depending on the size of your dog, we recommend adding 1-3 tablespoons per day for best results.
Buttermilk is another type of fermented milk drink with a liquid texture. It is made by adding live bacterial cultures to pasteurized milk, which assist the fermentation of naturally occurring sugars. As a result, buttermilk is a great source of probiotic bacteria.
When feeding your dog buttermilk, you mustn't heat it first, as this will kill all the good bacteria! Instead, simply pour a couple of tablespoons straight out of the carton and mix it into your pup's meal once per day for a friendly bacteria boost.
While fermented dairy products are naturally lower in lactose, if your dog is lactose intolerant, you may wish to avoid it altogether.
A perfect alternative to dairy-based probiotics is to add kimchi, sauerkraut or other fermented vegetables to their meals instead. These are naturally rich in beneficial probiotics, and if you struggle to find them locally, they can be easily made at home.
We recommend feeding your dog one teaspoon per 15lbs of body weight, once per day.
Bear in mind that fermented vegetables have a rather strong taste, so you may have to introduce them in smaller amounts at first, gradually increasing the serving size until your dog becomes accustomed to it.
Probiotic Supplements for Dogs: What to Look For
If you have a busy lifestyle or your pup is a fussy eater, you may wish to add a probiotic supplement to their meals instead. Probiotic supplements usually come in either a loose powder or capsule form and are designed to be sprinkled over the food.
When shopping for a probiotic supplement, you will see many references to what is called the “CFU count”, or “colony-forming unit”. The CFU describes the number of live and active bacteria present in the formula, which can make their way to your dogs' gut, create a new colony, and start working their magic.
You may be tempted to go for the highest CFU you can find, but this isn't always necessary.
Lower CFU counts of around 5-10 billion are perfect if you're looking to give a daily supplement to maintain the health of their microbiome. But if your dog is showing signs of digestive problems, skin inflammation, weak immunity, or has recently had antibiotic treatment, a higher CFU count of between 15-45 billion is a good choice. The higher number of active bacteria will restore the balance of the microbiome faster, thus helping your pup to feel better sooner.
Whether you opt for fermented, probiotic-laden foods or convenient powders filled with beneficial bacteria, making sure your dog has a balanced microbiome is a key to a healthy and happy pooch.
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Kelly Rowett is an animal lover and experienced full-time writer who’s passionate about creating high-quality content. When she’s not typing away at her laptop, you’ll find her hiking the coast path or playing endless seaside fetch with a pair of energetic Spaniels.