The contents of my cabinets — stocked with maca, goji berries, coconut water and the like — confirm it: I’m a sucker for food trends. So, when my social network lit up with talk of probiotics for dogs, I took cautious note. No harm, no foul if I want to get wacky nouveau with the things I eat, but what about my dog, whose nutritional needs I’m responsible for meeting?
“Probiotics,” a broad group of over 400 microorganisms that support a robust, disease-free body, are a longstanding favorite in the human supplement world. Now they are suddenly omnipresent in pet-supply stores as well. But are they suitable and safe for the canine constitution? To get to the bottom of these questions, as well as to better understand the fundamental mechanics and benefits of probiotics, I dug right in to get the lay of this microflora landscape. The result of these investigations? Four self-education steps that will help you map this molecular jungle, and safely separate the fish oil from the snake oil.
1. Understand the science.
None of us likes to think that our dogs are hosting microbes. But they are — hundreds of different kinds! And according to Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, an internationally recognized leader in probiotic microbiology, that’s a good thing. In the canine gastrointestinal(GI) tract, probiotics promote health by “piggybacking on the important relationship between the normal immune system and microbes,” says Sanders.
More specifically, Sanders suggests that probiotics increase “the activity or numbers of immune cells or cytokines, whose job it is to attack invading pathogens.” When the immune system senses these microbes in the gut, it launches a response. Probiotics can also produce antibacterial compounds called bacteriocins, which directly inhibit the body’s tolerance of pathogen growth. The plain-English version: probiotics are the good bacteria that kick out the bad, and then make it harder for the bad actors to get back in the door. They help your dog digest her food, increase her absorption of nutrients and boost her immune system, too.
When it comes to optimizing the use of probiotics, Dr. Robert Boyle, a clinical lecturer with the UK’s National Institute for Health Research, suggests that they work best as preventive agents. “Once disease is established,” Boyle writes, “it is harder for [probiotics] to compete with pathogenic bacteria and processes that have already become established in the gut.” While your dog is well, get her started with a diet rich in good microflora. But where do you get it?
2. Do it yourself.
Most over-the-counter supplements include strains of several common probiotic microorganisms — Bifidobacterium bifidum, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, for example — but the quality of these cultures varies wildly. Some nutritionists suggest buying only refrigerated supplements, since the shelved strains may be dead by the time you get them home. However, in 2009, the University of Toronto published a study that, among other things, questioned the batch-to-batch consistency in all probiotics, and found that enthusiasm for their use “has been hampered, at least in part, by concerns about precisely how the various organisms purported as probiotics mediate their beneficial effects.” In other words, there were so many products on the market, with so many different “mechanisms of action,” that questions were raised about the efficacy of these products as a whole. If you do buy supplements, it’s best to shop for whole-food, organic, refrigerated products, to check their expiration dates and to buy from companies that provide laboratory assays, or summaries of the drug potency. But are supplements your only option?