June 06, 2020 4 min read

Discussions regarding the use of probiotics and prebiotics– together known as synbiotics–in dogs have become ubiquitous lately. Many people are somewhat aware of the practice of using synbiotics in humans and that they can have many benefits. This has led to people asking whether their use in dogs is similarly advantageous. While, as with any aspect of science, the findings are tentative and nuanced, there's a lot we do know. The goal of this article is to use the best scientific understanding currently available to breakdown the issue and help people understand if, when, and how to best use probiotics and prebiotics to aid in canine health.

Dog Digestion

Much like in humans, a dog's digestive tract plays a large part in a healthy immune system. It also has other critical functions such as nutritional absorption, metabolism, and energy, among others. A key factor in the digestive tract's ability to properly carry out these functions is keeping a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria.

Both good and bad bacteria are naturally present in the dog's gut. It's the beneficial bacteria's job to ensure that the harmful bacteria are kept in check. If, however, the harmful bacteria are allowed to outnumber the beneficial ones they can cause real problems. The causes of such an imbalance can be anything from age and stress to antibiotics or parasites so this isn't a rare issue.

Good Bacteria & Immune Health

Aside from keeping harmful bacteria in check, good bacteria have several ways of supporting a healthy immune system. These good bacteria survive by feeding on the fiber in your dog's diet that his body is unable to digest. As a byproduct of fiber consumption, they produce short chain fatty acids (SCFAs).

SCFAs have many important roles in your dog's immune system including:

  1. Feeding good bacteria and discouraging the growth of bad bacteria.
  2. Protecting the gut by creating a layer of mucus as a barrier.
  3. Preventing "leaky gut" by keeping gut cells close to one another.
  4. Keeping glucose levels down to prevent obesity and aid in metabolic health.
  5. Aiding in nutritional absorption.
  6. Preventing food from triggering an allergic response.
  7. Building T-cells which help calm swelling.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are living bacteria and yeast that are beneficial to a dog's body. Although the good bacteria naturally found in your dog's body have so many important jobs, these vital functions are all impaired when the bacteria grow out of balance. This is where probiotics come in. They enter your dog's body and make their way into the digestive tract to take the place of the dog's natural bacteria and correct the imbalance, aiding in those crucial processes to keep him healthy.

What Are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are plant fibers that your dog can't digest but which make the perfect meal for the good bacteria in his gut. Basically, prebiotics are meant to act as a fertilizer for probiotics to keep the beneficial bacteria healthy and growing. For that reason, they're most effective when taken together as synbiotics.

When Can They Help Your Dog?

While some experts say you can give your dog synbiotics all the time without issue, they're most commonly used to treat digestive health issues. These conditions tend to be evidenced by symptoms like diarrhea, gas, abdominal cramps, and malodorous breath. A variety of different circumstances can bring about the type of digestive issues that may require treatment with synbiotics. These conditions include:

Infection- The cause of many infections is the kind of bacterial imbalance that causes good bacteria to need replacement.

Stress- Just like you may have digestive issues when you're emotionally taxed, so can your dog. This is also a common cause of diarrhea in dogs housed at shelters and kennels so it may be beneficial to administer synbiotics starting a few days before you know you'll be going out of town and leaving your dog in someone else's care.

Diet- Anyone who's ever switch brands of dog food to find that their dog's stomach had an adjustment period knows the truth of this. Switching more slowly by mixing a bit of the new in with the old and slowly increasing the percentage of new food over time can help minimize the effects. Adding a probiotic regimen can help treat the symptoms and help keep your dog's gut in balance.

Old Age- In the same way, people's bodies work less efficiently as they get older, dogs can have more trouble with digestion as they age.

Antibiotics- Antibiotics are very literally the antithesis of probiotics. Their job is to kill bacteria. However, they don't discriminate between good and bad bacteria, so they kill all the good intestinal flora your dog had built up.

Steroids- Steroids are broken down by bacteria in the gut. Long-term use can cause the kind of bacteria that feed on the medication to grow more prevalent and throw the microbiome out of balance.

A Word of Warning

While probiotics are generally considered safe, they can cause issues with puppies, older dogs, and dogs who have other medical issues. It is always best to consult your vet before giving a supplement, medication, or treatment of any kind to your dog. They know your dog's history and health along with how those things will affect your dog's ability to take these things safely.

Not all probiotics are the same. Depending on the issue you're trying to combat, there will be different strains that will be more useful for them. Again, consult your vet before deciding which strain or strength to use.

Also, since probiotics are living microorganisms, they need to be kept alive to be useful. Drastic temperatures, light, and exposure to air can all be harmful. Follow the care and storage directions carefully.

Bottom Line

Probiotics and prebiotics can be very useful as a treatment and helpful for supporting a healthy immune system in dogs. However, as with anything, you need to exercise caution. While there's a lot of research on the subject, much of it is tentative and requires further, more in-depth study to learn more. Your vet can be a wonderful resource to help sort through the information and explain how it relates to your dog and their specific health needs.

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Linked Sources:
Synbiotics:
https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/immunology-and-microbiology/synbiotics
Dog's Digestive Tract:
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28856735/ 
Short Chain Fatty Acids:
https://www.gutmicrobiotaforhealth.com/breaking-short-chain-fatty-acids-health/
Probiotics:
https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/what-are-probiotics#1 
Prebiotics:
https://www.mayoclinic.org/prebiotics-probiotics-and-your-health/art-20390058
Used to Treat:
https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/probiotics-for-dogs/
Long-Term Use Can Cause:
https://www.progressivehealth.com/certain-medications-may-be-causing-your-crohns.htm
 
OtherSources:
https://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/6-best-probiotics-for-dogs/
https://topdogtips.com/probiotics-prebiotics-for-dogs/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1075996415300032
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