Supplement types seem to be as susceptible to fashion as mini skirts. The current ‘magic’ supplement is the probiotic. But what are probiotics? How do they differ from prebiotics? And does your pet really need them?
Probiotics are a group of ‘friendly’ bacteria (literally, pro-life, indicating that they are bacteria and yeasts that help rather than harm) and are gaining popularity as daily supplements for humans. As always, pet owners have been quick on the uptake and starting to realize that horses can benefit from these bacteria as well.
Probiotics taken by mouth take up residence in your pet’s digestive tract. Think of the digestive tract as a rain forest ecosystem, with billions of bacteria and yeasts acting as the trees, frogs, and leopards. Some of these inhabitants are harmful, some are harmless, while others do good. By adding probiotics to the animal’s diet, you are tipping the scale in favour of the bacteria that do good.
There are a number of ways in which probiotics work:
- They compete with the harmful bacteria for limited space in your pet’s digestive system, thus helping to drive out harmful pathogens (disease-causing organisms). This is particularly useful in dogs and cats with gastro-intestinal problems, such as stomach pain, diarrhea or ulcers.
- They help to digest the food that your pet has eaten. Studies have shown that probiotics increase the quantity, availability, digestibility and assimilability of nutrients. In plain English – your pet gets more value out of the food that he or she eats.
- Antibiotics can disturb the balance of your Ãƒ¢Ã¢â€š¬Ã…”inner rain forestÃƒ¢Ã¢â€š¬ by killing friendly bacteria. When this happens, harmful bacteria and yeasts can move in and flourish. This is why, whenever your vet prescribes antibiotics, he or she will usually add a probiotic as well.
As well as feeding probiotics, you can give prebiotics such as fructo-oligosaccharides or inulin -supplements that are ‘food’ for the probiotic. Giving a prebiotic is like putting manure in a garden; it is thought to foster a healthy environment for the probiotic.
There are various problems with some of the probiotics available. The downside of using a living organism is that probiotics may die on the shelf. In fact, a study reported in 1990 found that most acidophilus capsules on the market contained no living acidophilus. The situation has improved in subsequent evaluations, but some products are still substandard.
Another problem with some strains of bacteria is that they are destroyed by stomach acid. You need to give a probiotic that survives the stomach acid and moves into the intestine still alive and able to do good work.
One of the best probiotics, in my opinion, is called Lactobacillus Sporongenes (LS). LS is also known as Bacillus coagulans. The most interesting thing about this bacterium is that it forms a hard, resistant spore, which is a good thing for two reasons:
- The hard spore makes the shelf life of the probiotic extremely good. Unlike most probiotics, you don’t have to keep LS refrigerated. And, when you purchase a probiotic containing LS, you will be obtaining a higher proportion of living bacteria.
- The hard LS spore is resistant to the acid in the stomach, but slowly opens up in the intestine. This is where it is needed. A lot of probiotics are killed by the acid in the stomach before they reach the intestine.