Gut health reinvented | Current issue

IPet food innovation is constantly evolving, with sustainable practices, ingredient transparency and traceability, and new sources of protein. However, gut health is now higher than ever. Since 2018, searches for “probiotics for dogs” have increased by 179%, with more than 33,000 searches per month.1 For searches for probiotics for cats and dogs, the volume doubled in 2021, with the US leading with the most searches, followed by Canada, the UK, Australia and Singapore.2

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are viable microorganisms intended to provide health benefits when consumed. The gut microbiome is a delicate balance of beneficial, opportunistic, and pathogenic microorganisms found in the digestive tract. This balanced microbiome supports the host’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract, as well as other organ systems. When consumed, the beneficial bacteria in probiotics can bind to attachment sites in the gastrointestinal tract and replicate to improve microbial balance, providing many health benefits to the host. These health benefits may vary depending on the probiotic strain, but may include immune system support, protection against infections, control or improvement of allergic disorders, reduction of signs of gastrointestinal disorders, supporting cognitive and behavioral responses and digestibility.

Why are they important?

While bacteria are commonly associated with disease in humans and animals, they are an essential part of a healthy and properly functioning digestive tract. The microbiome is home to billions of microorganisms that exist in symbiosis (hopefully) with their host animal. A balanced microbiome can ensure proper digestion and absorption of nutrients and prevent common gastrointestinal illnesses, such as diarrhea. In fact, many gastrointestinal diseases arise when an opportunistic or pathogenic organism can overgrow and outcompete other species present. Although not preventable in all circumstances, consuming probiotics can “seed” the gastrointestinal tract with beneficial bacteria and reduce the likelihood of dysbiosis (an imbalance in the microbiome), as well as providing a variety of benefits to the animal.

Many pet owners choose to proactively administer probiotics to their pets to help maintain a healthy microbiome. In fact, being proactive in feeding synbiotics, or a combination of probiotics and prebiotics, has been shown to reduce the incidence of diarrhea in dogs during times of stress, such as the kennel.3

How do they work?

The mode of action of probiotics is complex and depends on the specific bacterial strain. When the animal’s microbiome is not properly balanced, it can experience digestive upset, inflammation, and other ailments that are detrimental to its well-being. Probiotics can help by providing specific bacterial strains to ensure the microbiome stays balanced and the animal’s digestive health stays in good shape. Although it may seem complicated, some companies test animal feces to identify imbalances and provide suggestions for correcting them.

What to look for on the packaging

Being able to look on the back of pet food packages and understand strains and amounts of probiotics is important for pet retailers. Colony forming units (CFU) are commonly used in guaranteed analysis. CFU is the number of viable (live) microorganisms in a probiotic – or, in this case, food – per pound or kg. Like most items listed in the guaranteed scan, this is only a guaranteed minimum amount.

Another thing to look for is strains of bacteria. Not all strains of bacteria are equal. Some are considered more resilient, being able to survive more intense environmental factors, such as those in the manufacturing process. Some strains are known to be heat sensitive and may not survive application or shelf life. Finally, how many different strains of probiotics are there? As mentioned earlier, the microbial balance in the gut is delicate and many internal and external factors can create dysbiosis. This is also true for beneficial bacteria as there are five common phyla found in the dog’s gastrointestinal tract.

The four key questions

1. What is the application procedure?

Depending on whether the probiotics are added during extrusion or post-extrusion and what the environment is during the application process can greatly affect the viability of the probiotic.

2. Do strains have a protective shield?

In other words, is the probiotic in its natural form or is it encapsulated? Sometimes the encapsulation of probiotics can help the survival of the application process. Also, does the probiotic form spores? Sporulated probiotics, such as Bacillus spp. can withstand higher temperatures. This doesn’t mean it’s heat resistant, but the amount of probiotics you need to add to account for damage can be reduced.

3. Who is the supplier?

While it may seem like an unimportant question to ask, in the world of probiotics, not all are created equal. It is important that the supplier has researched the strains and the source of those strains, understands the application process and is able to provide guidance for obtaining a guaranteed specific analysis, and that he understands the importance of consuming viable strains. Without these three points of basic knowledge, companies could exert pressure and receive no efficiency.

4. What is the shelf life?

Not only do strains need to remain viable throughout the application process, but most pet foods have an 18 month shelf life. Are the probiotics sufficiently protected to maintain viability and guaranteed analysis claim? Has the brand performed any tests to confirm UFC recovery?

What’s on the horizon?

Probiotics are just a small part of the many options available for digestive health, such as prebiotic fiber, postbiotics, enzymes, and herbal remedies. As we begin to better understand the gastrointestinal microbiome, interest in pet probiotic supplementation will undoubtedly increase. With recent advances in technology, we are beginning to better understand the interaction between the animal and the microbiome. In fact, some researchers are using machine learning algorithms to understand, characterize and classify the microbiome, and ultimately predict its effect on health.4

With these advances, we can better select specific probiotic strains to target a disease or organ system of interest, ultimately leading to more personalized therapy. With digestive health being at the highest level of Google searches, it’s important that the appropriate questions are asked and that retailers can educate pet owners on a product best suited to their needs. BP


1. Vanderhoydonck, P. 2022. Trend Alert: Probiotics for Dogs and Cats.

2. Grzeskowiak, K., Endo, A., Beasley, S., Salminen, S. Microbiota and probiotics in canine and feline welfare. Anaerobic, 2015. 34:14-23. doi: 10.1016/j.anaaerobe.2015.04.002.

3. Rose, L., et al., Efficacy of a probiotic-prebiotic supplement on the incidence of diarrhea in a dog shelter: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 2017. 31(2):377-382.

4. Marcos-Zambrano, LJ, et al., Machine learning applications in human microbiome studies: examination of feature selection, biomarker identification, disease prediction and treatment. Frontiers in Microbiology, 2021. 12.

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