The latest research finds that gut health is just as key to animals’ well-being as it is to yours.
Credit: Annie Paddington

If you've paid more attention to your gut health lately, you might want to take a closer look at your pet’s microbiome, too. “Just like with people, pets’ gut health is the cornerstone of their overall health,” says Angie Krause, DVM, of Boulder Holistic Vet in Colorado. And as with human medicine, veterinary medicine is beginning to understand the link between an animal’s gut bacteria and its immune function, brain function, and even mood.

“This whole area is getting a lot of interest and research on the veterinary side,” says JoAnn Morrison, DVM, a small-animal internist at Banfield Pet Hospital in Portland, Oregon. “I think in the next few years we’ll see an increase in what we know about how probiotics help animals.”

What We Know Now

Although there’s general consensus that probiotics are helpful to pets’ overall health, current research is investigating the effects of specific bacterial strains on specific conditions. The strongest evidence supports probiotics in the treatment of digestive ailments. Emerging research suggests gut bacteria also might play a role in arthritis and anxiety.

“We know what’s in the GI tract has an impact on pets’ weight and blood sugar,” says Morrison. Researchers from Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. are looking into how the balance of proteins and carbohydrates in a dog’s diet affects its gut bacteria and weight. Digestive issues typically are the first sign an animal’s microbiome is out of whack, says Morrison. Some medications, such as antibiotics or steroids, also can throw off an animal’s bacterial balance, Krause adds.

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Smart Probiotics

Probiotics are a hot trend in pet nutrition. Morrison and Krause both recommend checking with your vet before starting your pet on a probiotic supplement. “There are a lot of supplements out there labeled ‘probiotic,’” says Morrison. “One of the challenges with probiotics is they have to get through the chewing and digestive processes. There are a lot of hurdles they have to jump through to get to the GI tract.” High-quality supplements typically have more than one strain of beneficial bacteria, she adds, and the higher the colony-forming units (CFUs), the better. It’s also popular for pet food companies to boast probiotics on the label, but, Krause notes, those bacteria are unlikely to survive the digestive process. Instead, check the label for safe-for-pets prebiotic ingredients—foods such as apples and bananas that feed healthy gut bacteria.

Krause advocates fermented food for pets and offers an online course teaching owners how to make simple fermented carrots, blueberries, or kefir to add to animals’ food. But skip the sauerkraut from a can, which might contain off-limits ingredients, such as onions, and won’t have as many powerful probiotics as home-fermented fare.