Probiotics can support gastrointestinal health in cats.

Probiotics and Prebiotics for Cats

Probiotics and prebiotics are commonly referenced on cat food labels and in advertising, but many pet parents don’t know what they are or if their pet needs them.

The most commonly recommended use for probiotics and prebiotics is regulation of the intestinal tract. “Irregularity” is often used as a polite euphemism for diarrhea, constipation, and flatulence. In all of these cases, symptoms are accompanied (and sometimes even caused by) changes in an animal’s gastrointestinal bacteria.

But what exactly are these products and how do they work? Are they right for your dogs and cats? What are their risks? Are you missing out if you don’t use them?

Here’s some background info to help answer these questions:

Background on Probiotics & Prebiotics for Cats

The history of prebiotics and probiotics goes back centuries, but their effects were first documented in the early 1900s at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Despite that, these therapeutic food additives comprise a relatively new field of study for veterinary nutritionists.

That’s partly because we have yet to understand the full impact of the microorganisms that live symbiotically within us. We know they help maintain the intestinal immune system, influence the proliferation of intestinal cells, and keep our body from expending too much energy in the extraction of nutrients from our foodstuffs. We’ve also recently learned that these bacterial populations have the potential to help or harm our health by aiding in many of the chemical reactions that take place in our intestines.

Which is what got veterinary medicine thinking that we might be able to influence good bacteria by offering these simple oral additives, improving our cats’ overall health in the process.

What Are Probiotics & Prebiotics?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines prebiotics as “nondigestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and activities of specific bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract and exert beneficial effects on the host.” These nondigestible fibrous food additives are used by the colonies of “good” gastrointestinal bacteria that live in the large intestines, in particular. They are increasingly recommended by veterinarians.

Two major classes of prebiotics have been proven effective in the treatment of infectious and non-infectious gastrointestinal diseases in cats:

Probiotics work differently. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” The idea here is that adding “good” bacteria will stimulate the production of more good bacteria (the ones that are presumed to be associated with specific health benefits). In this way, the entire balance of the intestinal flora will be shifted toward the good bacteria.

Benefits of Probiotics & Prebiotics

Research evaluating the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics have increased over the past decade. In the normal intestine, there are billions of bacteria that create a microbiome (the aggregate of all types of bacteria within the local environment). Any disruption in this balance can cause abnormal symptoms such as diarrhea, changes in appetite, bloating, flatulence, or an altered immune system function. Numerous studies suggest that having the right balance of good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract can resolve diarrhea and symptoms associated with inflammatory bowel disease, improve immunity, support energy metabolism, and even help inflammatory skin problems. Ongoing research is likely to suggest additional benefits.

Which begs the question: Should your cats be taking these supplements?

5 Reasons Vets Recommend Probiotics & Prebiotics for Cats

To help you out with that, here are five reasons many vets recommend probiotics and prebiotics for their patients:

  1. Symptomatic treatment of simple ailments. Many vets now routinely recommend prebiotics and probiotics for any cat who shows gastrointestinal (GI) tract symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, and flatulence. These irregularities, which are likely to be affected by a change in the microbial mix, seem most amenable to their influence.
  2. Long-term management of chronic disease. For others with more chronic or chronically-intermittent symptoms, pre- and probiotics may serve as a lifetime stop-gap for whatever underlying intestinal malady is ailing a patient.
  3. They’re so successful compared to riskier therapies. They’ve been so successful – in many cases displacing the need for risk-fraught antibiotics and tricky food trials – that the trend towards using prebiotics and probiotics in veterinary medicine is ramping up.
  4. They’re so safe. Because prebiotics and probiotics aren’t approved drugs and don’t undergo pre-market approval, data supporting quality, safety, and efficacy might be lacking. Nevertheless, these additives are widely considered to be harmlessly ineffective at worst.
  5. Cat owners love them. It’s a win-win-win. Vets love them, cats tolerate them and respond well, and their humans are happy to have something to offer that actually sounds appealing.

And when cat owners love something, you can be sure veterinarians will line up to offer it. There’s nothing we love more than a happy cat owner and healthy cat!

Dog vs. Cats

There are significant differences between the digestive systems of dogs and cats. The intestine of the cat is shorter than a dog, resulting in faster digestion. Domestic dogs are considered omnivores (they have the ability to survive based on eating animal and plant matter) and cats are carnivores (food and energy requirements are derived from animals), which also creates differences in digestion. Although the exact composition of bacteria in dog vs. cat GI tracts differ, the majority of probiotic products are labeled and safe for both species. Both dogs and cats can benefit from probiotics and some believe cats may benefit even more because of these differences.

Probiotic & Prebiotic Products for Cats

There are several products on the market and many are available over-the-counter (no prescription needed). They primarily come in powders and capsules, but are also available as treats or supplements in commercial food. Many products document probiotic concentrations based on the number of bacterial strains available and the quantity of colony-forming units (CFUs) per dose. Generally, the more bacterial strains and the more CFUs the better. The bacterial strains most beneficial to cats include those from the Bifidobacterium and Enterococcus families. Most products are labeled for both dogs and cats with only a few feline-only products.

Some commonly recommended probiotics and prebiotics include:

If you are considering a probiotic for your cat, talk to your veterinarian for their recommendation.

Most probiotics are administered once daily for a duration of a few days to a few weeks, depending on the underlying symptoms. In cats with symptoms of GI distress, benefits are often noted within 2 to 3 days. Immune system benefits from probiotics may take 4 to 6 weeks.

Milk Oligosaccharide Research & Cats

Oligosaccharides are complex carbohydrate supplements that behave as prebiotics, augmenting good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. Use in human health led to interest in the potential benefits of oligosaccharides for pets.

In late 2020, The University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences published research about the potential benefits of milk oligosaccharides for dogs and cats. Prior to this study, little was known about the structure, function, availability, and effects of milk oligosaccharides on pets. Three predominant milk oligosaccharides were identified in dog milk and 15 in cat milk. One oligosaccharide, GNU100, was shown to have beneficial effects when supplemented on foods, including enhanced palatability of supplemented foods and improved quality of GI flora. Expect to see this supplement promoted alongside prebiotics and probiotics in the near future.