By Jean Hofve, DVM
Lately it seems we’ve been running into a lot of cats–and dogs–who needed some extra help with digestive and other health issues. Probiotics have helped solve the problems for many of these animals.
The term “probiotics” (which means “promoting life”) covers a variety of “friendly” bacteria that are beneficial for the digestive tract. These include Lactobacillus acidophilus and other Lactobacillus species, and certain strains of Bacillus, Enterococcus, Bifidobacteria, and Streptococcus, all of which are commonly found in over-the-counter probiotic supplements.
Probiotics are of special importance in cats with any type of digestive problem, including vomiting, hairballs, diarrhea, and constipation. They are essential for animals who are, or have been, taking antibiotics; they can be given both during the course of antibiotics and for at least 2 weeks afterwards. Probiotics are particularly useful for allergies, including atopy (inhalant allergies), food allergies, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Probiotics promote a balanced and healthy bacterial population in the gut, which is important for complete digestion and general well-being. Intestinal bacteria aid in digesting certain nutrients by providing enzymes that the body does not make on its own. These organisms manufacture several B vitamins, and help maintain an acidic pH in the gut. They also prevent colonization of the digestive tract by pathological (disease-causing) organisms such as Salmonella and Candida.
Probiotic bacteria are normally present in a healthy digestive tract, mainly in the colon. L acidophilus, the strain most often used in fermented products like yogurt, was the first to be isolated and used as therapy, initially to treat constipation and diarrhea in human patients in the 1920s and 30s. In one study, human patients were given antibiotics to kill off most of their normal gut flora. After the antibiotic course was finished, they were then supplemented with L. acidophilus. Even more interesting, the levels of other normal bacteria, such as enterococci, also normalized rapidly. Further studies showed that the probiotics must be taken daily in order to maintain the beneficial effects.
More recent research on probiotics has found that few, if any, commercial probiotic supplements actually contained live bacteria, despite label claims to the contrary. That didn’t sound like good news, but it turned out that even these “dead” bacteria had a clear and beneficial impact on digestion. It seems that even after they’ve given up the ghost, probiotic bacteria still provide nutrients and other immune-boosting factors that help the intestinal cells stay healthy and happy.
It’s easy to add probiotics to your cat’s diet. While many owners and breeders recommend adding a tablespoon of yogurt to the food, this is not enough to have any effect. Most yogurt made commercially with live cultures contains these organisms at much lower levels, in the neighborhood of 100,000 CFU/ml. It is better and simpler (and definitely more cost-effective) to buy probiotics in powder or capsules and add them to the food. Choose a probiotic supplement that contains at least Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Many probiotics must be kept refrigerated to keep the organisms viable. It’s fine to use Fortunately these supplements generally have little taste and are readily accepted by most cats if mixed with canned or homemade food.
Here are a few of the products we like:
Feline Enzyme Supplement Specially formulated for cats with digestive enzymes, probiotics, taurine, fructooligosaccharides, proanthocyanadins, and liver.
Perfect Colon Formula Plus Human product (but safe for pets) with probiotics, fiber, and fructooligosaccharides; great for cats with diarrhea or constipation problems; sprinkle a small amount on wet food and mix thoroughly.
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