When it comes to gut health and function, probiotics are often mentioned as a go-to solution for many digestive woes — for both people and their pups! But what, exactly, does that mean for your dog?
There are many ways to introduce probiotics into your dog’s gut, from probiotic supplements to a dollop of yogurt added to your dog’s dinner bowl. But a growing number of manufacturers are offering dog food with probiotics already added into the formula.
Intrigued? Here’s everything you need to know about probiotic dog food and how it can help boost your dog’s digestion, nutrition, and overall health.
Do Dogs Need Probiotics?
About 70 percent of a dog’s immune system is contained in their gastrointestinal (GI) tract, also called the digestive tract or simply the gut (1). The gut microbiome is home to both “good” and “bad” bacteria. Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help support your pet’s digestive health, which, in turn, can boost the immune system. The key is to maintain the right balance.
The composition of gut bacteria can fluctuate depending on what a dog eats as well as factors like stress or illness. And when that balance is off, your dog may experience any number of symptoms, from gassiness and loose stool to vomiting and gastrointestinal distress.
A regular course of probiotics can help maintain the optimal balance of bacteria in the gut to help keep your dog healthy and happy.
What are Probiotics for Dogs?
When you think about probiotics in food, yogurt may be the first thing that comes to mind. Yogurt and other fermented foods contain two of the most commonly used probiotics, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
But such probiotic-rich foods may not always appeal to dogs’ palates. And often, “people food” with probiotics also contains added sugars or other ingredients harmful to dogs.
To make things easier on pet parents, probiotics for dogs are available in supplement forms, such as capsules, powders, chews, and pastes. But for ultimate convenience, dog food with probiotics can help ensure your pet is getting a consistent daily amount of gut-boosting good bacteria.
Some probiotic dog foods feature probiotic strains that specifically target a dog’s digestive tract. For example, certain foods contain Lactobacillus acidophilus, which can help improve stool quality, Lactobacillus casei, and Bifidobacterium animalis, which can help with acute diarrhea (1).
“Dogs have a different gut microbiome than humans, and therefore, they need bacterial strains that are beneficial in their systems. This is why human probiotics are not helpful to dogs,” explains veterinarian Dr. Jamie Whittenburg, DVM, director of Kingsgate Animal Hospital in Lubbock, Texas.
“There are many different bacteria used in canine probiotic supplements. I recommend looking for a product that contains more than one strain and is manufactured by a reputable company,” Whittenburg suggests. “A higher number of colony-forming units (CFU) is also desired as this will offer more beneficial bacteria to the gut.”
If you are unsure which type of probiotic is best for your pet, contact your veterinarian for guidance, Whittenburg says.
How Does Probiotic Dog Food Work?
Some pet parents prefer probiotic dog food over supplements because it’s easy to give. In fact, some owners start their furry family members on probiotic dog food when they are still young.
“Dog foods that contain probiotics have the advantage of convenience because you know your dog is consuming the product,” Whittenburg says. “Add-ins, capsules, and treats may be more difficult to have your dog eat. A probiotic that isn’t consumed will have no benefit. However, it highly depends on which bacterial strains are contained in the food versus other products.”
If you’re wondering which dogs would benefit most from probiotic dog food, it depends on the dog’s overall health. “Probiotics can be beneficial for any dog, but may offer unique benefits for dogs with sensitive stomachs, food sensitivities, senior dogs with medical conditions such as cancer, dogs that have recently been ill, and dogs that have recently received antibiotics,” Whittenburg states.
Of course, every dog is different, and there could be some instances where probiotics may not be the answer to your dog’s stomach issues. “Probiotics are not a panacea,” Wittenberg warns. If you have questions about probiotics and your dog, speak with your veterinarian.
6 Benefits of Dog Food with Probiotics
While there has not been as much research into the impact of probiotics on pets as there has been on humans, many veterinarians agree probiotics can have a positive impact on a pet’s health.
Let’s take a closer look at the potential benefits of feeding probiotic dog food.
Dogs with healthy digestive systems feel good, so they tend to act “normal” — eating, drinking, and having regular bowel movements without problems. However, dogs with chronic stomach problems may experience bad breath, frequent diarrhea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal issues.
These are probably the most easily recognized reasons why a pet parent might consider probiotics for their dog. After all, if your dog often vomits or doesn’t want to eat, those are clear signs something’s off with your pet.
Dog food with probiotics may improve your dog’s digestion, so they feel better. This includes promoting a balanced gut microbiome to support a healthy digestive system.
Immune System Boost
It all goes back to the gut and brain connection. When your dog’s gut is healthy, your pup feels their best. If not, the gut sends warning messages to the brain. It’s not the gut’s fault it can’t interpret what’s a real threat and what’s not. That’s just the way the body is wired. Whether your dog is facing an actual predator or an unsettling change of routine, it’s all the same to their subconscious. It causes stress, and stress can impact the immune system.
According to Whittenburg, “Probiotics have been shown to improve a dog’s immune system…The exact mechanism is complicated, but in general, probiotics aid the cells of the immune system that recognize and destroy foreign substances (germs) as well as those that produce illness-fighting antibodies. For immune system support, I would recommend probiotics to dogs that are in stressful situations or have an illness, as both can suppress the immune system.”
A good balance of dog probiotics means your pooch’s gut is better regulated, and therefore, their stress levels stay low, and the immune system is robust. A strong immune system also means healthy dog food benefits your pet more because their body is better able to absorb the nutrients.
Calms Sensitive Stomachs and Treats Digestive Issues Due to Food Intolerances
Like people, some dogs have sensitive tummies and chronic GI issues. If your dog has a food intolerance, eliminating the trigger food can help. For example, if your dog suffers from tummy troubles and it turns out they’re sensitive to soy, and that’s an ingredient in their food, then changing their diet will help.
Dog foods for sensitive stomachs usually contain probiotics because they can help support a healthy gut.
“Probiotics help improve the digestive system barrier and aid in the digestive process,” says Whittenburg. “A dog with a mild food intolerance, or one that has recently been administered antibiotics, may benefit from probiotics as they will repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria, improving digestion.”
In other cases, if your dog is new to digestive issues, it could be because they’ve developed Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a leaky gut, or other gastrointestinal problems. Probiotic dog food may help support their digestive health.
Helps Reduce Flatulence
If your dog is prone to stinky gas, that may be a sign their digestive system isn’t happy. Gas and bloating don’t feel good for your dog and while releasing the gas is a relief to your pup, it’s often unpleasant to anyone nearby. Common causes of gassiness in dogs include eating ingredients that are hard to digest and swallowing too much air when scarfing down food. A highly digestible dog food with probiotics might help reduce your dog’s gas, so you’re no longer wrinkling your nose due to doggy farts.
Helps Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Scientists have long studied the brain-gut connection in humans, and it turns out that connection exists in our pups too. Stressors like changes to your dog’s routine or separation anxiety could trigger symptoms of anxiety, including excessive panting, pacing, lip licking, and even tummy troubles like frequent diarrhea and vomiting.
Such stomach upset is stressful, too. But probiotic dog food may help balance your pet’s gut biome, reducing the impact of stress on your dog’s stomach.
Easier Cleanup of Waste
When you walk your dog, would you rather scoop up a normal poop or a messy one? Of course, less mess is best. But reducing loose stools isn’t just about easier cleanup. Improving the consistency of your dog’s poop can also improve their health. And—no surprise—probiotics play a part.
“Probiotics have been shown to increase regularity of defecation and can be beneficial for dogs experiencing both constipation and diarrhea,” says Whittenburg. “The beneficial bacteria compete with any less desirable bacteria in the gut microbiome and help to regulate the transit time in the gut.”
“There may be more stool to clean up, not less,” Whittenburg warns. However, when your dog’s digestive system is functioning well, they’re more likely to produce a consistent stool that’s not too terrible to clean up.
“I use probiotics in all dogs with diarrhea, to aid in repopulating the gut with beneficial bacteria and to repair their gut microbiome,” she notes.
Dog Food with Probiotics: What to Look For
When choosing the best probiotic dog food for your pet, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Are live cultures important? In a word, yes. While ingesting living organisms might sound unappealing, they’re essential to gut health because the digestive system is constantly in flux, and they help keep it stable. When choosing probiotic dog food, choose a brand that uses live and active cultures.
What about prebiotics? If probiotics are living, then it makes sense they need a food source to thrive. Prebiotics are that food source, so you’ll want to look for them in your probiotic dog food, too.
Does the probiotic strain matter? Different species and strains of probiotics can offer different benefits. For instance, Lactobacillus acidophilus can aid in regular bowel movements.
Is cost a factor? Healthy ingredients usually cost a bit more, which reflects the pricing of quality dog food. However, probiotic dog food doesn’t typically cost more than other healthy dog foods, and it pays off in your dog’s long-term health.
If you’re considering transitioning your dog to a new probiotic food, many veterinarians and pet food manufacturers recommend introducing the new food slowly.
This can be achieved by adding some of the new food to your dog’s existing food over a few days or weeks until they’re only eating the new food. An abrupt change in your dog’s diet can be too dramatic for dogs with sensitive stomachs and can cause more tummy troubles.