Many of us pet parents have heard of maybe one or all three of these digestive aid supplements, but do we really know what each are and what they do? In order to really understand each of their functions and how they can help, it is important to know a few things about the digestive tract. Normally, there are millions of bacteria that live in the small and large intestines of healthy animals. We call this population of bacteria, microflora. This would be a mix of good and bad bacteria, like pathogens.
The beneficial bacteria help to digest food, maintain intestinal mucosal integrity, participate in metabolism, and stimulate systemic immune function. The mucosal barrier in the intestines they must maintain is responsible for blocking the entry of pathogenic bacteria (the bad bacteria), while also allowing nutrients through to be absorbed. The pathogens enter the body orally and travel through the digestive tract, to avoid getting sick, the intestinal defenses must be in tip top shape to handle the constant exposure of pathogens and foreign substances.
As our pets eat, their pancreas must produce enough digestive enzymes to begin the digestive process in order for the body to absorb the nutrients. The better the food components are broken down the better the absorption and benefits to the pet. Due to many health issues, use of medication, and just aging, the production of the enzymes may be reduced, resulting in decreased digestion, and therefore decreased absorption.
Now that we are a bit more familiar with the roles of enzymes and the microflora on digestion and the digestive tract, we will touch on the three digestive aid supplements.
- The food for probiotics.
- A form of fibre that passes through the small intestine undigested to feed the good bacteria (probiotics).
- Living microorganisms, also known as beneficial bacteria, that adjust the intestinal bacterial population and aids in digestion and immune system function.
- Prebiotics and probiotics work together to promote a healthy gut biome.
- Digestive Enzymes
- Break down your pet’s food into tiny particles that are small enough to be absorbed by the intestines and then fuel crucial life functions.
Let’s dive into more detail of each of these digestive supports.
Many people are confused about the actions of prebiotics and probiotics and cannot define them separately as they are rarely talked about individually. As we briefly stated before prebiotics are a source of nutrition for the beneficial bacteria, and it is also a fibre source for our companions and have beneficial affects on the body. They can be easily added as a supplement or as a whole food component of their diet.
Prebiotics are normally carbohydrates called oligosaccharides, but noncarbohydrates have also been used as a prebiotic source. Researchers say that there are two carbohydrates that fully meet all the criteria in order to define them as prebiotics, those are oligofructose and inulin.
- Undergoes quick fermentation in the colon.
- Provides nourishment to the bacteria and intestinal cells in that area of the colon.
- Can be found in whole foods such as soybeans, oats, and beets.
- Fermented slowly through out the colon.
- Provides nourishment to more bacteria as it travels down the colon.
- Sources include artichokes, jicama, and chicory root.
When using an oral supplement of prebiotics, the ingredient panel should list fibre sources, but it may not specify whether it is inulin or another fructo-oligosaccharides.
We have gone over that prebiotics are the food source for bacteria, but what are the other benefits to the body? Dogs and cats lack the enzyme that is needed to break down prebiotics while passing through the small intestines. This is why it reaches the microflora that help break it down through fermentation, creating their energy source. This process also releases compounds that results in a lower colonic pH and stimulates normal sodium and water absorption from feces. The lower pH inhibits the growth of the pathogenic bacteria. The prebiotics encourage further production of normal cells while preventing pathogenic or transformed cells from multiplying.
If you are using probiotics it is recommended to supplement with prebiotics as well as they do enhance the benefits of probiotics and together, they maintain the balance of healthy bacteria. Many food manufacturers include prebiotics in their food formulations and are listed in the ingredients. Many probiotics include prebiotics, which can be found in the label along with dosing instructions. Each manufacturer may have slightly different directions, so it is always best to contact them with any specific questions. There are no detrimental effects of long-term use of prebiotics, though if too high a level was to be administered, it may result in reduced protein digestibility. In other words, digestive upset such as diarrhea.
They are the beneficial bacteria that help rebuild or maintain a healthy gut biome within our beloved pets. They are known to protect against pathogens, strengthen the immune system, aid in digestion, and help maintain a healthy weight. The gastrointestinal tract is so important for the immune system because 70% of immune cells are located in the gut. Improving gut health is crucial for overall health and longevity. It is key to fighting off infections and resisting disease.
The use of probiotics may vary from pet owner to pet owner. Some may use it every day to ward of side effects of medications or to simply aid in digestion, or only after a bout of diarrhea or antibiotics to help rebuild the healthy microflora in the gut. Probiotic usage ranges from chronic health issues to general maintenance. Here are a few health concerns that probiotics are proven to help with.
- Immunosuppression Disorders
- Helps the immune system fight pathogens and prevent infections.
- Digestive Disorders
- Improve digestion and assists in absorption of essential nutrients.
- Help to reduce glucose levels in the blood and help maintain a healthy weight.
Research is still being done on the effects of probiotics in the following conditions, but many pet parents have experienced the following:
- More stable cholesterol levels in diabetic pets.
- A reduced risk of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colon cancer.
- Helped to relieve symptoms from food allergies and sensitivities.
The most common reasons for probiotic supplementation are:
- Following a course of antibiotics to rebuild the bacterial population.
- Antibiotics destroy all bacteria within their spectrum, not specifically the bad bacteria that they are prescribe for.
- To reduce diarrhea, constipation, and other side effects from medications.
- To improve stool consistency and aid in digestion.
There are two main ways the probiotics benefit our pet’s health. Probiotics help control symptoms, like diarrhea, that are caused by a bacterial imbalance or parasitic infection through competitive exclusion. The probiotics out-compete the pathogenic bacteria for nutrients and binding sites on intestinal/immune cells, resulting in an improved immune response. Probiotics also benefit the body by releasing antimicrobial compounds known as bacteriocins which improve the functionality of the epithelial barrier. The epithelial barrier is a protective layer of the intestinal wall that controls what passes through and what is absorbed. This results in better control of the immune response from the mucosal tissue in the gastrointestinal tract.
To truly function as a probiotic, there are a few things the bacterial strain must be able to do:
- Survive the acid and bile found in the gastrointestinal tract.
- Adhere to intestinal cells or colonize various areas of the gastrointestinal tract.
- Prevents or reduces the pathogenic bacteria from adhering to the intestinal cells.
- Produces acids, hydrogen peroxide, and/or bacteriocins that help prevent the growth of pathogenic bacterial populations.
- Helps to achieve a normal balance of microflora.
- Must be safe, non-invasive, noncarcinogenic, and non-pathogenic.
There are three primary bacterial populations included in supplements that have a proven benefit, and they are lactic acid bacteria. Lactobacilli, bifidobacterial, and enterococci have been shown to be especially beneficial. It is always a good idea to check the label of your probiotic source to ensure it has the correct bacterial populations for dog and cats. It is not recommended to give probiotic supplements made for humans; it may cause you more trouble. You may find probiotics and prebiotics together as mentioned above, as well as in many forms including, powder, capsule, treat, and whole food sources. There are no detrimental effects of long-term use of probiotics, though it is always best to read and follow the directions on the label.
Though it is not a requirement to add digestive enzymes to your pet’s diet, they are known to aid in digestion, improve immune system performance and their overall health. They help breakdown and process the food molecules for better digestion and absorption to be utilized by the body. Digestive enzymes are present in the body by one of two ways: produced by the body and found in the digestive tract or those found in the food making its way through the digestive tract.
The body produces the most important digestive enzymes in the pancreas. A relatively small organ that is located near the stomach and small intestine. Whether it is through a health condition, medication side effects, or just old age, the pancreas’ ability to produce these enzymes can be diminished and it could use a little extra help.
The most common enzymes included in supplements and produced naturally by the body are:
- Breaks down fats into fatty acids and alcohols.
- Breaks down proteins and peptides to amino acids.
- Converts glycogen and starch to simple sugars to be used or absorbed.
They can also include other digestive enzymes such as:
- Breaks down proteins and helps with inflammation and pain.
- Breaks down proteins and acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
- Breaks down fibre, most commonly cellulose, not naturally present in dogs or cats.
Researchers find that if the pet is not suffering from pancreatic or digestive issues, you may not experience any difference in digestion with or without digestive enzyme supplementation. On the other hand, it can be very beneficial for pets with pancreatitis or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) as the pancreas cannot function as well as is needed. Pancreatitis is described as inflammation of the pancreas; it can be chronic or acute. The symptoms you may see in your pet if they are experiencing pancreatitis are lethargy, painful abdomen, restlessness, lack of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea (blood may be present). EPI is a disease where the pancreas does not produce enzymes as efficiently or possibly not at all. It is more common in German Shepherds but has been seen in other breeds and can be confirmed by a blood test. Symptoms our beloved pets would experience are being underweight but always hungry and constant, smelly diarrhea. A few other symptoms or conditions they may help with are diarrhea, weight loss, flatulence, bad breath, irritable bowel syndrome (IBD), coprophagia (eating their own poop), leaky gut syndrome, acid reflex, and indigested food in their poop.
There are many areas where your pets may experience some benefits after providing digestive enzymes. Since they aid in digestion, they also improve absorption and nutrient utilization and therefore increased energy. They also provide immune system support and can improve joint comfort and motion. It has shown to help maintain normal cholesterol levels and a healthy weight. Lastly, its ability to reduce digestive upsets like constipation, bloating, heartburn, gas, and skin reactions.
Just like pre & probiotics, digestive enzymes can come in many forms and directions may vary between products and manufacturers. Always ready the label for directions and storage or contact the manufacturer with any questions. Though effects typically wear off within 24 hours, always follow dosage instructions and do not double dose. High doses can result in ulcers in the mouth, vomiting and diarrhea. If your pet suffers from food allergies, always check the enzyme source to know which to avoid as they can cause an allergic reaction. Many digestive enzymes are sourced from animals, and you may see facial swelling, hives or difficulty breathing if they have an allergy to that protein.
For some pets it may be best to wait and discuss with their veterinarian prior to supplementing with digestive enzymes. If they fit under the following description, please seek veterinarian advice:
- Pregnant or lactating animals.
- Pets with liver or kidney issues.
- High blood pressure or other blood disorders.
- Already on antacids, antibiotics, anticoagulants, antidepressants, blood pressure medications, H2 blockers, proton pump inhibitors, or sedatives.
There are some worries in the Veterinarian world that continuous supplementation may result in dependency, the pancreas will reduce production and not meet requirements on its own. Since there are so little studies done on the topic in pets so far, this has not been studied or proven but it is always best to take caution and do your research before deciding to use digestive enzymes.
Whole Food Sources
Many of you may be thinking that your beloved furry family members could really benefit from prebiotics, probiotics, and/or digestive enzymes but how should you add them? We are all individuals, including our pets, and some may not have any troubles administering a powder or capsule format, others really enjoy the convenience of a treat format that fools them. Many enjoy incorporating whole food options into their pet’s diet to include a digestive aid. Below are a few examples on how you can include prebiotics, probiotics, and digestive enzymes into your pets’ diet.
|Digestive Aid||Food Source|
Fermented Vegetables (Leafy Greens and Root Vegetables)
Raw Goat’s Milk
|Digestive Enzymes||Green Tripe |
Papaya (no seeds or skin)
Raw Honey/Bee Pollen
Apple Cider Vinegar
As always, if you have any questions about the use of digestive supplements or how to get started, our Healthy Pet Care Specialists are always happy to help.