Probiotics for Dogs: Are They Needed?

Pet parents want to give their pets the best life that they can. There is evidence that probiotics for dogs may benefit kidney function, digestive health, and overall immunity and even decrease anxiety. Probiotic-enriched diets have shown promise in early studies, but further research is necessary to determine whether dogs need daily probiotics or are best left for pets with underlying illnesses. Websites-galore claim numerous ‘natural’ and other products as the best probiotics out there.

Key takeaways:

But the question remains: should pet owners trust these claims, and are probiotics for dogs even needed?

Should you give probiotics to your dog?

Pet owners often wonder, “Can I give probiotics to my dog?” The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. We should ask whether a pet needs probiotics daily or only when sick. The answer depends on the pet’s age, breed, veterinarian, underlying disease conditions, and more.

Currently, science doesn’t support using probiotics for every dog every day. Studies neither favor nor oppose to the daily use of probiotics, as current evidence shows that it doesn’t lessen the chance of illness. However, in some instances, such as in dogs with abnormal stool quality or dogs with anxiety, a daily supplement may be beneficial and improve quality of life.

What to know before giving probiotics to dogs

You can Google ‘natural probiotics’ or even ‘probiotics for dogs’ and get tons of Google hits, with too many commercial supplements spouting they have a great product that supports your pet’s health. However, only a handful of products are backed by scientific research that confirms their benefit and the presence of bacteria in sufficient numbers to impact health.

What are probiotics?

Bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms help make up a species’ microbiome. Everyone has a microbiome that resides in their gut, helps with food digestion, and functions as part of the body’s immune system, fighting infection and foreign invaders. Research continues to show that the health of this microbiome is tightly connected to the health of the individual regardless of species.

Many people feel that daily probiotics support gut and immune health. But what are probiotics? Simply put, probiotics are living microorganisms, usually bacteria, that can provide health benefits when consumed or applied to the body. But it isn’t as simple as just consuming bacteria; what the bacterial species are, how many there are in each dose, and the quality of the product matters. Furthermore, since the government does not regulate probiotics, products without research behind them can’t make any medical claims. As always, caution is advised when giving them to your pet.

How much bacteria is enough?

The number of bacteria in each probiotic serving matters, as the larger the number, the greater the likelihood that enough bacteria will survive to have a meaningful impact on health. Products may have one or more bacterial species and can have fewer than 100 million colony-forming units (CFUs) to more than 1 billion per serving.

With that in mind, select products with a minimum of 1 billion CFUs per serving when feasible. However, remember that some products with evidence that confirms benefit have fewer than this benchmark.

Bacterial species matters

Beneficial bacteria for a dog’s gut depends on the dog and the product. The species of bacteria also matter. Scientific research has shown that several species of bacteria may be beneficial and impart health benefits when given to dogs as a probiotic. These include species such as:

  • Bacillus coagulans, Bifidobacterium animalis (AHC7)
  • Bifidobacterium longum (BL999)
  • Enterococcus faecium (SF68)
  • Several Lactobacillus species

Some bacterial strains may help treat acute diarrhea, while others may help with chronic abnormal stool and even anxiety. However, research is limited, and additional studies are needed to determine the ratio of bacteria that will provide the most benefit and the frequency of administration.

What is a good probiotic for my dog?

People often seek out ‘natural’ products for dogs for treats, food ingredients, and even probiotics or other supplements. However, remember that the word natural has no meaning in the medical world. Botulism toxin is natural, yet potentially deadly. Just because something is used for humans and claims to help with gut health doesn’t mean it will have the same benefit for animals.

So, you may be asking, "What is a good probiotic for my dog?" Probiotics come in various forms, like supplements, a component of a well-formulated dog food, or can be found in human food products. However, not all probiotics are created equal.

Benefits of using probiotics

When safe, reputable, scientifically proven products are used, probiotics may benefit a dog’s overall health. They can support the immune system, treat mild acute diarrhea, and support pets with chronic inflammatory GI conditions.

Risks of giving probiotics

Generally speaking, probiotics are considered relatively safe and unlikely to cause harm. However, several products have been evaluated for antimicrobial resistance, and the bacteria in these products have demonstrated this trait. This means the bacteria can survive in the face of antibiotics, making potential future illnesses more difficult to fight. Thus, daily administration isn’t necessary and likely inappropriate for all dogs.

Since most studies are completed on humans, not dogs, overall safety is not fully known. In healthy individuals, it is presumed that probiotics are safe to use daily. However, daily administration may harm animals with immunocompromise (e.g., cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, taking certain medications), and additional research is needed.

Side effects

Most probiotics are well-tolerated by dogs. However, those with flavoring could trigger dogs with food allergies or inflammatory GI conditions to demonstrate side effects (skin and GI symptoms). Some dogs may have a bit of abnormal stool, increased gas, or mild abdominal discomfort for a few days until their bodies adjust to the product. Usually, no abnormalities are seen.

Probiotic food for dogs

Many dog foods are fortified with probiotics in addition to other high-quality ingredients. However, not all food companies use scientific studies to document the benefits their foods have on the health and well-being of dogs. Thus, while probiotics in dog food may be beneficial, they may be added solely to enhance flavor and impart no health benefits. Further, they may be added and emphasized in marketing and packing as a plus to sell the product.

We do not yet have sufficient data on foods with probiotics and their long-term effects when fed for a dog’s life. Thus, selecting dog food solely based on the presence or absence of a probiotic isn’t recommended. Talk to your veterinarian about dog foods and what they recommend.

What about ‘natural’ probiotics?

What about probiotics specifically marketed for humans or in foods like yogurt with live cultures? Research to date demonstrates that certain species of bacteria are beneficial in the canine GI tract. However, species of importance and their ratios within the digestive system differ in humans vs. dogs. More research is needed to determine what human supplements or people foods can be used as probiotic sources for dogs safely and with actual benefit.

Can pumpkin, kefir, or yogurt, among other foods with reported probiotic properties, be given safely to dogs, or can they harm man’s best friend? The answer depends on the dog, as there are no natural probiotic foods for dogs. As they age, dogs’ digestive abilities decline, so they often do not tolerate dairy. Xylitol and other human substances frequently added to human foods for sweetening and to improve taste (palatability) can be poisonous or poorly absorbed in dogs. Finally, no studies suggest that these food items deliver adequate probiotics to speed recovery or cure diseases. While the fiber in pumpkin might benefit dogs with soft or firm stools, please consult your vet before feeding your pooch human foods for probiotic supplementation, especially if underlying health concerns exist.

Can I give probiotics to my puppy?

As for any dog, a complete and balanced puppy food appropriate for the pet’s age, breed, and size is key to a healthy growing dog. However, some puppies may have GI upset as they switch from nursing to solid food or adapt to a new home after weaning. Further, puppies are prone to parasites and, even once treated for the parasites, may have a soft stool or abnormal color or frequency.

Supporting puppies with a probiotic may improve their gut health and, by extension, their overall health.

So, if you are wondering, "Can I give probiotics to my puppy?" The answer is yes. In fact, your vet may put your puppy on one at the puppy visit if the stool isn’t normal or while treating for an intestinal parasite. However, puppy probiotics aren’t necessary for every puppy, and you should speak with a veterinarian before adding any supplements or foods claiming to be probiotics.

What products veterinarians recommend varies from one vet to another. Still, vets practicing high-quality, evidence-based veterinary medicine recommend well-researched products with evidence that shows benefit and no harm. Some recommended products may be available at your veterinarian’s office or online via Amazon or Chewy. Some are also available at retail pharmacies near you.

Since vets prefer science-backed products, there really isn’t a best natural probiotic for dogs. Instead, products supported by veterinary evidence are preferred. Commonly recommended veterinarian-approved products are:

  • Fortiflora® by Purina.
  • Calming Care® by Purina.
  • Proviable® by Nutramax Laboratories.
  • Visbiome® Vet by ExeGi Pharma, LLC.

Purina’s Fortiflora has CFUs in the millions, while Purina’s Calming Care has over a billion. Still, Fortiflora has been shown to prevent the onset of antibiotic-induced diarrhea and treat mild cases of acute diarrhea.

Purina’s Calming Care has been specifically formulated as an adjunct therapy to help manage anxiety in dogs. This product has scientific evidence supporting benefits when used regularly. Both Purina probiotics are flavored powders sprinkled on food, which may be contraindicated in dogs with food allergies or inflammatory bowel disease.

Proviable comes in capsule and paste form, and research and clinical experience show effectiveness in treating diarrheal diseases.

Visbiome comes in a human and pet version. CFUs, bacterial species matter, and human and pet products have been studied. Veterinarian internists strongly recommend this product for dogs with GI and other disorders. When treating dogs with inflammatory GI conditions, research favors the daily administration of this specific product. Whether this holds for other products or if daily use by healthy dogs is beneficial requires additional studies.

Probiotics aren’t for everyone

Daily probiotics aren’t needed for the average healthy dog on a high-quality, fully balanced, reputable dog food. While research supports using probiotics daily in a few conditions, these studies have small sample sizes, and additional research is needed to determine if daily probiotic supplementation will benefit dogs overall. If you are considering a probiotic, speak with your veterinarian first to ensure that the product is right for your pet and that there are no contraindications.

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