Probiotics for Cats: Are They Needed?

Finding ways to improve the health and well-being of people and animals is a current societal priority. Many people believe that probiotics for cats may have advantages for the GI tract, immune system, and kidney health. Ongoing early research suggests that probiotic-enriched foods may be beneficial long term. Still, additional research is needed to fully understand which cats should be supplemented regularly and which should only receive probiotics in the face of an underlying illness.

Key takeaways:

To discuss probiotics, we need to understand what they are and what benefits or risks we may face by supplementing our cats with them. In human and animal health, it is becoming increasingly recognized that our guts (our microbiome) and minds are interconnected, and the health of one impacts the health of the other. Chronic disease, stressful states, and inflammatory conditions that affect the gut can negatively impact one’s day-to-day function.

But what are probiotics? The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body.”

What is the microbiome, and why do we care? When discussing any species’ microbiome, we are referring to the group of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and others) that naturally reside in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and help protect the body against unhealthy invaders. Why is the microbiome important? Increasing research (especially on the human side) has shown that the health of the microbiome has a major impact on the overall health of the individual.

So, do vets recommend probiotics for cats? That depends. Veterinarians may recommend probiotics for your feline friend for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, vets use probiotics such as Visbiome®, Proviable®, or Fortiflora® to treat acute (recent onset) or chronic (>two weeks duration) diarrhea and related conditions.

You may wonder why your vet prescribes medication and doesn’t tell you to give yogurt with live yogurt cultures. First, the bacteria that live in the guts of cats differ from humans. Second, the products mentioned above (among others) have scientific research that shows that the bacteria contained within the products:

  • Are beneficial and play a role in a cat’s gut health
  • Are well-tolerated
  • Contain sufficient quantities of bacteria to be effective
  • Restore the natural balance of gut bacteria, returning the microbiome to its healthy state

Possible benefits of probiotics in cats

While it isn’t fully clear based on current research if every cat would benefit from a probiotic regularly, we do know that probiotics in cats may have a positive impact on the following:

  • Oral (dental) health
  • Allergies
  • GI disease management
  • Kidney disease
  • Immune system support

Additional research is needed to further understand the benefits of probiotics and whether daily administration in cats without underlying health conditions imparts advantages, improves the microbiome, and lengthens life.

Side effects of probiotics

In general, probiotic products are considered safe and generally do not cause long-lasting side effects. While side effects from probiotics are uncommon, depending on the reason for use, the strength of the selected product, and other factors, some animals may experience increased gas, bloating, or changes in stool consistency for a few days as their body gets used to the product or as the organisms in the GI tract reorganize and the healthy overtake the unhealthy.

Probiotic forms

Because each species has its unique set of bacteria and other organisms that populate the digestive tract, products specifically formulated for each species are recommended. While some overlap exists from one species to another, it is recommended to use products developed for use in cats.

One of the biggest concerns in cats is whether they will take a probiotic without a fight. Finding a tasty way to get it in the cat helps. Cats can be notoriously picky, with even a slight texture abnormality contributing to a lack of cooperation. For some, you may need an unflavored capsule that can be sprinkled into wet food when opened. Others may benefit from a flavored powder that you put on the food. Others may do best with a prescription food specifically formulated with microbiome health in mind.

Other considerations

In addition to the product’s composition/form, the strain (type) of organisms within the products, the number of colony-forming units (CFUs), the number of viable bacteria per serving, and whether they need refrigeration will vary. Those requiring refrigeration may be more beneficial as the organisms are more likely to remain alive than those at room temperature. Those with higher CFUs are considered more valuable and have a greater potential to improve gut and overall health.

Antimicrobial resistance concerns

In addition to a lack of sufficient evidence to suggest regular probiotic administration in healthy cats is needed, another reason to consider not routinely giving your pet probiotics is that several products have been shown in early research to contain genes for antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

AMR is a serious public health threat. It means that microbes like bacteria can change their genes to resist various antibiotics, making it harder to treat multiple conditions. If your pet has these bacteria in their GI tract and gets sick, it could make treating the condition harder or even impossible. Thus, while generally considered safe, they may not be fully without risk. Routine use of probiotics (especially products without regular scientific assessment, testing, and quality control), may not be for every cat.

Can I give probiotics and antibiotics together?

Make sure your veterinarian knows you are administering a probiotic. Antibiotics kill not only the damaging bacteria but also healthy organisms. Thus, it is advisable to space out any probiotics from an antibiotic by four hours or more to prevent the antibiotic from killing the good microorganisms.

If antibiotics can kill both good and bad bacteria, why use a probiotic with antibiotics? Since these drugs can alter the healthy bacteria that naturally protect one’s GI tract, by supplementing cats with a probiotic, we can help replenish and maintain the healthy bacteria while preventing or lessening the chance of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Often, vets will prescribe a probiotic and antibiotics together for this reason.

Which product do I choose?

So, what kind of probiotics should you give your cat? You can buy numerous over-the-counter (OTC) products that aren’t the brands named above, though several of those can be purchased OTC. However, these products fall into a category like supplements. They are not regulated by the FDA like medications are.

Only products with well-researched scientific studies behind them are recommended, because we know that they are effective and contain the ingredients and bacteria they are supposed to. Other products may be helpful but need to include sufficient bacteria or the right kinds for your pet.

Talk to your veterinarian if you are considering starting your healthy cat on a probiotic. You want to use products that:

  • Are recommended and vetted by a veterinarian
  • Have scientific research to back them up
  • Have quality control standards that are third-party tested
  • Remain stable and viable for the duration the product remains in date
  • Are easy to get your cat to take

What about feeding a food with probiotics?

Most research currently looks at using probiotics to treat disease states such as diarrhea, oral health, and more. However, pet food companies are increasingly adding probiotics to their foods. Is it to sell the food, or is there some benefit? Some prescription foods with probiotics added have evidence that suggests advantages.

If you want to feed a food with added probiotics, make sure the company you choose has veterinarians with board certification in nutrition on their staff. Further, ensure the probiotics are in the finished product and not degraded by storage or other factors.

Just because a food company advertises that they use probiotics in their food doesn’t mean that this has any health benefits. Often, it is a marketing strategy to make their food more appealing so that you are more likely to buy it. Alternatively, probiotics are added because they may improve shelf life, taste, or food texture without being included for specific health effects.

Are daily cat probiotics needed?

So, should you put your cat on probiotics just because? The short answer is maybe. The research on probiotics in humans and dogs is ever-growing. It shows benefits in various conditions and possibly aids in preventing diseases. Dogs and humans have similar (though not the same) gut flora. However, the studies using probiotics in dogs are much more common than in cats. Thus, it isn’t clear whether every cat should be on a probiotic, if there could be some harm to it, or if there is simply no benefit.

If you are considering putting your cat on a probiotic, talk to your veterinarian first to determine if it is right for you and your pet and what products or scientifically proven foods are recommended. Then, you can decide if supplementing your cat with a probiotic is the right choice.

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