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How can I improve my dog's gut health?

Brown dog looking happy advice

In dogs probiotics can begin to work in a few days.

© Shutterstock

When it comes to helping keep a dog's gut healthy, you'll find it's all about probiotics.

By Dr Alice Watson MA VetMB MRCVS

Published on the 12/08/2020, 09:15

Us humans always want to keep our gut health as good as possible, and this is the same for our dogs. One of the best ways to keep a healthy gut is to feed your dog an appropriate diet. Sometimes people recommend probiotics to help with a dog's intestinal health.

What probiotics are there for dogs?

Probiotics are live bugs (also known as microbes e.g. bacteria, yeast, viruses) that are beneficial to health when eaten. The guts are full of lots of different types of microbes and this is known as the microbiome. Some of the gut microbes are ‘good’ and some may be harmful, if too many of these grow. Probiotics work by providing ‘good’ bacteria that can grow and reduce the numbers of harmful bacteria (by outcompeting them). This change in balance of microbes makes a healthier gut.

In dogs, several different bacteria and yeasts have been studied for use as probiotics, although we still have lots to learn. The European Food Safety Authority has a list of bacteria and yeasts that have supporting evidence to show that they are safe for feeding to dogs. Examples include Lactobacillus (L. acidophilus), Enterococcus (E. faecium) and Bifidobacterium (B. animalis).

One difference to be aware of is between probiotics (live bugs) and prebiotics, which are fibres (non-digestible bits of food) that feed and stimulate growth of microorganisms already within the gut. Prebiotics may actually be more effective in altering the microbiome. Some supplements contain both probiotics and prebiotics.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk 

Are there probiotics with yeast for dogs?

One study has shown that a specific yeast (Saccharomyces boulardii) is beneficial in the treatment of diarrhoea that has gone on for a long-time, or diarrhoea that has led to protein leaking into the gut. If you are interested in trying yeast-containing probiotics to treat your dog, it is worth discussing this with a vet.

How long does it take for probiotics to work in dogs?

It usually takes a few days for probiotics to help resolve acute diarrhoea (diarrhoea that has not gone on for a long time) in dogs. If your dog’s diarrhoea is not improving after a few days, it is worth contacting a vet.

For chronic diarrhoea (diarrhoea that has gone on for a long time) probiotics may also be beneficial, although it generally takes longer to see the effects. If your dog’s diarrhoea has been going on for a long time, it is best to discuss treatment options with a vet.

Are probiotic yogurts good for dogs?

Fermented products such as yogurts are thought to increase the production of lactate in the gut, which may be beneficial to the health of the microbiome. At present there are no specific studies on this in dogs. Yogurts may not be the best probiotic for dogs, although there have been no studies on this. In addition, probiotic yogurts are often formulated specifically for humans. Yogurt may also be high in a sugar called lactose, which dogs are not able to digest as well as humans.

Given the current evidence, it is better to stick to a good quality diet and to use probiotics that are proven to be beneficial in dogs.

What are the benefits of probiotics for dogs?

Probiotics can have several benefits. They work by providing good bacteria that can rebalance the number of good versus bad bacteria in the intestines and therefore improve the microbiome. This works in several ways: by directly providing good bacteria; and also stimulating the growth of other good bacteria and reducing the growth of harmful bacteria. Changes in the microbiome may also influence how the immune system works.

Improving the health of the gut may reduce inflammation of the gut, which can help to reduce diarrhoea and improve nutrient absorption. Probiotics may also be used to treat atopic dermatitis (allergic skin disease), while one study has shown that probiotics were helpful.

How do I pick the right probiotic for a dog?

There are many different brands of probiotic available. You may like to ask a vet about which type they recommend. The dog's microbiome is made up of lots of different types of bacteria and yeasts, of which some are beneficial and some are harmful. As such, it is best to look for a dog-specific probiotic product that has been studied to prove it works.

Ideally probiotics will contain several strains of ‘good’ bacteria. A good quality probiotic should name what organism it contains (including strain name), the amount of probiotic it contains (CFU/kg, the World Health Organization recommends that it contains more than 1 x 10^9 CFU/kg) and products should have a date by which the bacteria are guaranteed to be present at the stated level.

Often probiotic products contain several other components that may be beneficial. The first of these is prebiotics. Prebiotics are not live microorganisms like probiotics, but are fibre in the diet that cannot be digested by a dog, and this fibre feeds the ‘good’ bacteria. Another component that may be included is kaolin. This is a type of clay that is used to bind faeces together and it is thought that it can neutralise some toxins inside the intestines.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk 

What happens to a dog if it has too much harmful bacteria?

Sometimes the microbiome gets upset and the harmful bacteria numbers increase and the good bacteria numbers decrease. This may be the result of a dietary change or an antibiotic course. When this happens, you may see symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting and flatulence. If you are concerned about your dog, you should contact a vet. Sometimes cases can be treated with a bland diet and probiotics, but it is best to speak to a vet, if you are worried.

Does a lack of variety of bacteria affect a dog's gut health?

It is thought that having a big variety of microbes within the gut is healthy. In some cases a reduction in diversity of microbes can cause diarrhoea, especially when one harmful bacteria has ‘taken over’ and has reduced the number of good bacteria.

Probiotics can help rebalance the microbiome and improve gut health. Interestingly, some research has shown that the gut microbiome reverts to how it was before the probiotic supplement, once the supplement is stopped. A better way of altering the microbiome for longer is dietary change or the use of prebiotics.

When should I see a vet about my dog's gut health?

If you have any concerns about your pet's health, it is worth contacting a vet. The following four situations are all strong reasons for getting in touch with a vet. First, your dog has had diarrhoea that has not improved after a few days of switching to a bland diet. Second, your dog has severe vomiting or diarrhoea. Third, you think your pet may have eaten something that could cause a blockage (like a sock). Or fourth, you think your pet isn’t eating or drinking and may be getting dehydrated.

How should I address my dog's gut health with a vet?

You may like to start by describing your main concerns to a vet and then going on to discuss the specifics. It is often helpful to describe what has happened in the order it happened. For example, you may mention any diet changes, when the diarrhoea started and what it looks like, and/or if they have vomited, how many times and what it looks like.

What should I ask a vet about my dog's gut health?

You may want to ask a vet which probiotic they recommend and why. You may also like to ask about the evidence that supports the probiotic they are suggesting.

How do you add probiotics to your dog’s daily diet?

Often probiotics are formulated as pastes that go directly into your dog's mouth or onto their food. Probiotics can also come in powder or capsule form, which may be given with or before food. It is always best to check the directions on the packet to see how it should be given to your dog.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk