As a pet owner, you may have heard about prebiotics and probiotics and their potential benefits for your cat or dog‘s health. These two terms often come up when discussing gut health and digestion. If your pet has had chronic or acute gut problems, you may have wondered if these products can help.

Prebiotics and probiotics are both substances that can support a healthy gut, they are often used together or combined into a single product, but they differ in their composition and mode of action: 

Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates (fibre) that pass through the upper digestive tract undigested and pass to the large intestine where they serve as food for beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, already present there.  

Probiotics are live microorganisms, mainly bacteria or yeasts, that are believed to confer a health benefit to the host when administered in adequate amounts. They can help populate the gut with beneficial bacteria, restore microbial balance, and support a healthy digestive system. 

When might prebiotics or probiotics be used?

Digestive issues: they are often recommended to help manage conditions such as diarrhoea, constipation, and gastrointestinal upset, including after antibiotic treatment. 

Stress and anxiety: in times of stress or anxiety, such as travel or changes in routine, it has been claimed, without compelling evidence, that prebiotics and probiotics may help support the gut-brain axis and promote emotional well-being. 

Immune support: some poor-quality studies suggest that prebiotics and probiotics may positively influence the immune system, potentially reducing the risk of certain infections. The consensus is that this benefit is yet to be proven. 


Are probiotics effective in pets? Do prebiotics work for pets?

Surprisingly, there hasn’t been very much research into the use of pre- and probiotics in veterinary patients. The gut is very complicated and we still have an enormous amount to learn about the normal microbial population, which bugs are good and which are harmful, what we can do to influence that population, and what effect those interventions might have.  

Some studies have shown positive results, while others have been inconclusive. Generally, the studies and the research that has been carried out are of poor quality and many conclusions are flawed.  

Some manufacturers have made quite wild claims over the benefits of pre- and probiotics that are not supported by evidence. However, there is reasonable evidence demonstrating that they can be beneficial in treating acute diarrhoea. 

Because pre- and probiotics are considered nutritional supplements, there is minimal regulation of their production and sale, and certainly far less stringent controls are placed on them compared with medicines. It’s important to note, therefore, that not all prebiotics and probiotics are created equal, and their effectiveness may vary depending on the specific strains and formulations used. Quality control is generally quite poor across the market and studies have shown that many probiotics don’t contain the type or quantity of bacteria claimed on their labels.  

Most veterinary-supplied products will have some research data to support their claims so, whilst you may find cheaper products online, for example, there is no guarantee that you will see any benefit from their use. 

Are there any studies that show prebiotics are effective in pets?

Some studies have supported potential mild beneficial effects in acute diarrhoea associated with antibiotic use, and acute diarrhoea of unknown causes. 

There is currently no definitive evidence that pre and probiotics have any beneficial effects beyond the treatment of acute diarrhoea, including the treatment of chronic diarrhoea. 

There is currently no compelling evidence that they are useful in kidney disease, feline viral respiratory disease, strengthening the immune system, and epilepsy, despite being variously marketed for such conditions. 

Prebiotics and probiotics are not a substitute for proper veterinary care. While they may offer benefits for certain conditions, they should not replace necessary medical treatment prescribed by a veterinary surgeon.

What are the risks of probiotics for pets?

If a product has a positive effect, it must also have the potential for negative side effects. Indiscriminate use of pre and probiotics could cause gastrointestinal upset, flatulence and bloating.  

Some concern has been raised about the potential for antibiotic resistance to develop in the bugs contained in probiotics. 

However, generally speaking, if they are used appropriately, there are no substantial risks associated with the use of pre- and probiotics. 

When should I be concerned about my pet's gut health?

If your pet has diarrhoea or constipation that lasts more than 24 hours, or is accompanied by other symptoms like vomiting, lethargy or signs of pain, you should contact your daytime vet or Video Vets Now. Out of hours, find your nearest Vets Now clinic location and we’ll be able to help.