How healthy is your cat’s gut?
If your cat uses a litter tray you’ll be well aware of any changes in your pet’s poop. There are many reasons why a cat produces anything other than the perfect nugget, ranging from medical conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease or pancreatitis, to a diet change or even stress.
If you cat has a problem it might be she is already under the care of your vet and receiving treatment. Perhaps the condition is improving but things haven’t firmed up completely, in which case you need to know about the role of probiotics to promote gastro-intestinal health.
But first it helps to understand the role bacteria plays in digestion and keeping the gut in good condition.
Mother Nature and the Gut
The lining of a new-born kitten’s gut is a blank canvas, but within hours of birth the mother’s milk begin populating it with bacteria. By the time that kitten is a few weeks old she has 100s or even 1000s of strains of bacteria helping her digestion, mainly subspecies of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
These miniature house guests have several important roles:
- to process digested food more efficiently
- to protect the body against pathogens
- stimulate the immune system
One example of the important role played by bacteria is they block the passage of toxins from inside the gut into the blood stream, which minimises inflammation of the gut wall and reduces the likelihood of dietary allergies developing.
Rowdy House Guests
Under certain circumstances the population of healthy bacteria get out of balance. A bit like a house party which is taken over by unruly guests who then leave the place in a mess, not all bacteria are helpful when it comes to digestion. When given the chance these ‘unhelpful’ bacteria take over. Typically this happens after a bout of diarrhoea, when bowel spasm expels the gut contents and those good bacteria go with it. This leaves the door ajar for those antisocial bugs to step in and do their own thing.
Anything which disrupts the normal healthy function of the bowel can induce ‘dysbiosis’ or an imbalance of gut bacteria. These include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Chronic diarrhoea
- Antibiotic use
- Infections with parasites, protozoa, or bacteria
- Dietary allergies or intolerance
- Diet change
Restoring Balance and Order
The idea behind probiotics is to give the cat a daily dietary supplement containing appropriate bacteria which then helps to restore balance and order. However, this is where things start to get a little sticky. For instance when given by mouth the bacteria have to survive being bathed in stomach acid, in order to pass down into the intestine where their work is needed.
Probiotics are not classed as drugs, and so there is no obligation on the maker to put the product through rigorous clinical trials to prove the benefits or to manufacture to a set standard. For many manufacturers it simply isn’t worth the huge expense of putting their products through scientific trials when they can bring it to market without. However, what this does mean is you should choose your probiotic carefully.
Whilst probiotics are readily available, they are not all created equal. The claims made on the packaging about the type of bacteria and numbers present per dose are often unsubstantiated and can be wildly inaccurate. High numbers of the correct bacteria need to be present in order to be effective, and this seems doubtful in many of the products available.
Indeed, worse than that, independent tests have shown that certain products are contaminated not only with harmful bacteria but with moulds. This may seem extraordinary, but the explanation is the classification as a “food supplement” means quality control is less rigorous.
Certain veterinary probiotics have been put through careful trials and the manufacturers proudly claim their products are pure, contain only helpful bacteria, and that those bacteria are micro-encapsulated so they pass safely through the stomach in high enough numbers to be effective. As a careful consumer, I always recommend that you do your own research and read the ingredients label carefully so you fully understand what each product contains.
Human or Feline Specific Probiotics?
If you take a daily probiotic drink, can you give that same product to your cat?
Good question, to which there is no clear answer.
First it needs to be said that many human probiotics are associated with dairy products such as milk or yogurt. Not all cats can digest the lactose in milk, so for those cats the answer is a straight “No,” because you are giving with one hand (the probiotics) but taking with the other (milk intolerance.)
But what about cats that can tolerate dairy? Well, opinions are divided. Some vocal advocates of probiotics insist that you should only give species specific probiotics. However, it’s interesting to note that those same voices often have a species-specific products for sale.
In summary, it seems that no one really knows for sure if human probiotics are beneficial because there have been no large scale trials where they are given to animals and the results tracked. Whilst there are anecdotal accounts of improvements for individual cats (and Charlie is one such case), there is no rock solid scientific proof they help, but on the plus side you are unlikely to do any harm. The feline gut contains 100s and 1000s of subtly different bacterial strains, so it seems reasonable that it can tolerate a strain that aids human digestion.
Do you use probiotics in your cat’s diet? Do you have a preference for human or veterinary grade probiotics?
PS. What Works for Charlie
Whilst we know people who confidently use veterinary grade probiotics for their pets, Charlie (who has IBD) did not see any improvement in his gut symptoms until we switched to a human grade probiotic supplement.
- Renew Life Ultimate Flora Everyday Probiotic — part of Charlie’s daily diet to help him maintain a healthy gut.
- Renew Life Ultimate Flora Advanced Immunity — contains saccharomyces boulardii which works effectively during flare-ups of Charlie’s IBD to manage diarrhoea.
We use the probiotic supplements above which we buy online at iHerb.com. Use code GSP403 at checkout and save up to $10 on your first purchase.