Your cat just aced sitting on cue or finally honed his claws on his cat tree instead of your couch. You may reward him by treating him to conventional feline favorites like shaved
bonito fish flakes or juice from a water-based can of tuna.
Or, you could treat him to a batch of bacteria.
Sounds a bit unappetizing, maybe even a bit dangerous, right? But the rising popularity of pet supplements is motivating more pet parents to seek ways to boost the overall health of their cats beyond dishing up a quality diet. Topping the list of popular supplements are prebiotics and probiotics.
What’s the difference?
Note that the only difference in spelling between these two words is the “e” in prebiotics and the “o” in probiotics. However, they are quite different in form and purpose, but do seem to work in harmony together.
“A probiotic is a live bacteria population that provides positive effects for your cat,” explains Candy Akers, DVM, owner of Journeys Mobile Veterinary Services, who operates an integrative veterinary medical practice in Elizabeth, Colorado. “A prebiotic is the healthy food that those good bacteria eat.”
Probiotics typically come in capsule and powder forms. These nutritional supplements are designed to aid cats coping with diarrhea, constipation or other digestive issue. Prebiotics are fibrous additives found in some commercial pet food that feed good intestinal microorganisms. The role of prebiotics is to complement probiotic functions.
Adds Stephanie Karpf, DVM, who operates For Cats Only veterinary clinic in West Palm Beach, Florida, “Probiotics is used to describe the beneficial bacteria that live inside of the gastrointestinal system. These wondrous little bacteria help with normalizing gastrointestinal system function and help contribute to an improved immune response.”
Specifically, probiotics are given to cats for these five reasons:
- Improve their gastrointestinal health to reduce bouts of diarrhea, constipation, gas or vomiting. “Friendly microbes help improve digestion,” Dr. Akers says. “By allowing a cat’s body to properly digest food, probiotics help extract all of those critical nutrients that we pay so much for in pet food.”
- Maintain normal stools during temporary times of stress in the household. When a cat feels stress, the fight-or-flight biological survival instinct kicks in and can trigger colon issues that cause loose stools or diarrhea.
- Support a strong immune system. Dr. Akers points out that the bulk of a cat’s immune system army consists of living, beneficial bacteria on an ongoing mission to fend off invading organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, yeast and parasites.
- Improve the absorption of vital nutrients, including calcium for strong, healthy bones.
- Restore the amount of vital nutrients that may be lost when processed food is cooked at high temperatures.
In summary, Dr. Akers says, “Additional benefits of good bacteria in probiotic supplements include a more stable blood sugar level, a reduction in eye discharge, better mood stability, protection from kidney disease, fewer urinary tract infections, fewer hairballs, a reduction in shedding and a healthier coat.”
The holistic approach
“I estimate about 40 percent of the families I consult ask me about probiotics,” Dr. Akers says. “Clients will often ask what is the most important supplement to give their cat to keep them healthy, and my answer is: a good probiotic. This sounds simple enough, but there are so many probiotics on the market that choosing one that is ‘good’ and helpful for your pet can be difficult.”
She points out a study published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal in 2011 in which researchers analyzed 23 veterinary probiotic products available on the internet and found that only four actually contained the number of good bacteria claimed on their labels.
This study helped motivate Dr. Akers to wage an educational campaign that includes her annual Dr. Candy’s Holistic Selection Guide on supplements on her website. She points out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate pet supplements, so the quality of contents in these products can vary.
“I created this guide to give pet parents honest advice about natural pet health,” Dr. Akers says. “Pet parents need to know that a probiotic supplement contains appropriate species of bacteria, proper amounts of these organisms and that the supplement is free from dangerous or potentially contaminated ingredients. I use my evidence-based holistic approach to medicine to evaluate the characteristics of the products.”
In selecting a prebiotic or probiotic, she advises: Look for at least four different species of bacteria and a large number of CFUs. “CFU stands for colony-forming units and proves a measurement of the number of live bacteria in each serving size,” she says. “Find the best match based on your pet’s species, age, health status and medical diagnosis.”
Dr. Karpf emphasizes keeping your veterinarian informed of any supplements you plan to give your cat, including prebiotics and probiotics. Cats require specific bacterial groups that address their specific health needs.
“Work with your veterinarian on choosing supplements designed specifically for cats and to address the specific needs of your cat,” Dr. Karpf says. “Never use a probiotic supplement designed for people.”
About the author:
Arden Moore is a pet behavior consultant, author and master pet first-aid instructor who often teaches hands-on classes with her cool cat, Casey, and very tolerant dog, Kona. Each week, she hosts the Oh Behave Show on Pet Life Radio. Learn more at ardenmoore.com and follow Arden on Facebook and on Twitter at @ArdenKnowsPets.