By Jean Hofve, DVM

There are many cats (and dogs) who need extra help with digestive and other health issues. Probiotics have helped solve these problems for many pets.

The term “probiotics” (which means “promoting life”) covers a variety of “friendly” bacteria that are beneficial for the digestive tract. These include Lactobacillus acidophilus and other Lactobacillus species, and certain strains of Bacillus, Enterococcus, Bifidobacteria, and Streptococcus, all of which are commonly found in over-the-counter probiotic supplements.

Probiotics are of special importance in cats with any type of digestive problem, including vomiting, hairballs, diarrhea, and constipation. They are essential for animals who are, or have been, taking antibiotics; they should be given both during the course of antibiotics (2 hours apart from the drugs) and for at least 2 weeks afterwards. Probiotics are particularly useful for allergies, including atopy (inhalant allergies), food allergies, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Probiotics promote a balanced and healthy bacterial population in the gut, which is important for complete digestion and general well-being. Intestinal bacteria aid in digesting certain nutrients by providing enzymes that the body does not make on its own. These organisms manufacture several B vitamins, and help maintain an acidic pH in the gut. They also prevent colonization of the digestive tract by pathological (disease-causing) organisms such as Salmonella and Candida.

The immune system also depends on a healthy gut flora, and probiotics are a great way to keep the immune system functioning at its best. Research has shown that even the way the immune system responds to vaccines is highly influenced by the diversity and health of gut bacteria.

Probiotic bacteria are normally present in a healthy digestive tract, mainly in the colon. L acidophilus, the strain most often used in fermented products like yogurt, was the first to be isolated and used as therapy, initially to treat constipation and diarrhea in human patients in the 1920s and 30s. In one study, human patients were given antibiotics to kill off most of their normal gut flora. After the antibiotic course was finished, they were then supplemented with L. acidophilus. Even more interesting, the levels of other normal bacteria, such as enterococci, also normalized rapidly. Further studies showed that the probiotics must be taken daily in order to maintain the beneficial effects.

More recent research on probiotics has found that few, if any, commercial probiotic supplements actually contained live bacteria, despite label claims to the contrary. That didn’t sound like good news, but it turned out that even these “dead” bacteria had a clear and beneficial impact on digestion. It seems that even after they’ve given up the ghost, probiotic bacteria still provide nutrients and other immune-boosting factors that help the intestinal cells stay healthy and happy.

It’s easy to add probiotics to your cat’s diet. While many owners and breeders recommend adding a tablespoon of yogurt to the food, this simply adds extra carbs and sugars to the diet, but not enough probiotics to have any beneficial effect.  It is better and simpler (and definitely more cost-effective) to buy probiotics in powder or capsules and add them to the food. Fortunately these supplements generally have little taste and are readily accepted by most cats if mixed with canned or homemade food.

Here are a few of the products we like

Celestial Pets Feline Enzyme Supplement Specially formulated for cats with digestive enzymes, probiotics, taurine, fructooligosaccharides, proanthocyanadins, and liver.
Pet Colon Comfort Formula with probiotics, fiber, and fructooligosaccharides; great for cats (and dogs) with diarrhea or constipation problems. Just sprinkle a small amount on wet food and mix in thoroughly.