A darling of dietitians and a long-standing buzzword among health enthusiasts, probiotics have been linked with cures for conditions spanning our digestive and immune systems, not to mention the positive effect they may have on mental health. We know these "good" bacterial strains work by helping to balance the gut's microbiome in humans, but when it comes to canines, their effect isn't as clear, given that research is at an earlier stage. A 2010 study on beagle pups proved that one canine-derived probiotic strain is well-tolerated, and more recent preliminary studies on dogs with acute diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, and polyps have demonstrated probiotics' anti-inflammatory effects. Even so, it's best to exercise a bit of caution before feeding Fido a bowl of your favorite yogurt. Here are three tips from veterinarians to keep in mind.
The Form Is Important
Live cultures reside in abundance in yogurt, kefir, and cheese—but because many dogs have a dairy intolerance, serving them any of the above can cause stomach upset, says Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer at the American Kennel Club. Over-the-counter probiotic powders, liquids, and pills aren't always a foolproof option either since they're often not regulated, "which means that you may not be giving your dog the product or dosage that you believe you are," Klein adds. As an alternative, Boulder, Colorado-based holistic veterinarian Angela Krause suggests fermenting food to make your own probiotics. "You may not know exactly which strains you're getting," she says, "but you can be sure it's a large variety of bacteria and yeast, and the process is relatively inexpensive."
The Microbiome Is Still a Mystery
"If we can take an unbalanced microbiome in a pet or in a human and get it in balance, then the potential health benefits are numerous," says Krause, "which is why veterinary medicine has begun to explore fecal transplants, where the bacteria from one dog's waste is moved into another dog's body." That said, though studies on gut bacteria are ramping up, there's still much unknown about the optimal composition of the microbiome—and, as of now, it seems likely that it varies greatly from one person or pet to another. As a result, pinning down which bacterial strains will benefit a particular dog (or human, for that matter) is no simple task.
Don't Fix What Isn't Broken
Because it's possible that your dog won't tolerate certain probiotics, it's best to consult your veterinarian before settling on a supplement or shifting his diet. If he doesn't have a health condition that could be lessened or resolved with the addition of a probiotic, your vet may not advise you give him one at all. In fact, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a probiotic is not currently recommended if your canine is eating a "complete and balanced" commercial pet food, unless prescribed by your vet.