First of all, what even are probiotics? You've probably heard of them in terms of food, like probiotic drinks or yogurt. You might also have seen them on pharmacy shelves as probiotic supplements. Well, the answer is pretty simple: probiotics are bacteria.
Before you get worried about infections or anything, it's worth remembering that bacteria are everywhere. They're on every surface, in the air, on our skin, and even inside us. Especially inside us, really. Our guts – from the stomach to the intestines to the colon – are packed full of bacteria.
The thing is, most of the bacteria in our bodies are good for us. They help break down the things we eat so we can get energy and nutrients from things we otherwise wouldn't be able to digest. There's also a lot that medical science doesn't even know about how they work. There's evidence to suggest that the bacteria in our gut – also known as gut flora or our gut microbiome – can impact things like mental health and much more. One thing's for sure: these bacteria are friends.
Of course, the gut is also full of bad bacteria. Normally, bad bacteria are kept in check through a few different ways. They're outcompeted by the good bacteria; we don't feed them as much as we feed the good bacteria, and our immune systems can fight them off, too.
Sometimes, though, things go out of whack. If you get sick, your immune system might be busy elsewhere, allowing bad gut bacteria to flourish. If you eat a diet of heavily processed garbage and tons of sugar rather than vegetables and fiber, you're feeding the bad bacteria more than the good bacteria. Taking antibiotics as part of a medical treatment can also wipe out everything in the gut, and the bad bacteria might come back faster than the good bacteria.
That's where probiotics come in. Probiotics come in two forms: food and supplements.
Probiotic food is food that contains these good bacteria. They're usually fermented foods, like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi. They're tasty, they're healthy to eat, and they add more good bacteria to your gut to help promote those good colonies while getting rid of the bad bacteria.
Probiotic supplements are just capsules filled with the bacteria. If you can't handle the food or don't like the taste, a probiotic supplement can work just as well, if not better. They're also a great way to help combat the purging effects of antibiotics, bolster the good bacteria, and let the bad bacteria die off.
In humans, probiotics are generally two kinds of bacteria: lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. There are a bunch of species within these two types, but that's not really important right now.
What About Prebiotics?
A related term you may have heard is "prebiotics." If antibiotics kill off bacteria, and probiotics contain and promote those bacteria, what are prebiotics? Well, they're the things that come beforethe bacteria. That is, it's the food for the bacteria.
In humans, good bacteria generally thrive on fiber, which is why doctors often tell us to get more fiber in our diets. In dogs, that's not quite the case. Prebiotics for dogs include many of the nutrients dogs normally need, which works out great! They're already there in good dog food.
You generally shouldn't need to go out of your way to give your dog special prebiotics unless you've been feeding them food that doesn't have everything they need in it.
Can Your Dog Take Your Probiotics?
So, if probiotics are good for you, are they good for your dog too?
Unfortunately, not really.
Dogs are living creatures with digestive systems that work in more or less the same way as humans. They eat food. Digestive enzymes, stomach acid, and bacteria in the gut all process that food, breaking it down into nutrients their bodies can use and other stuff they can't. The stuff they use is absorbed and used or stored for later, and the stuff they can't is expelled. So far, so good.
The difference is, well, dogs aren't human. Their bodies need different sets of nutrients and different balances of vitamins and minerals. Things that are toxic to us are fine for them, and things that are fine for us are toxic to them. They don't work the same way.
Humans evolved to have a symbiotic relationship with the good bacteria I listed above. Dogs, though, didn't. They DO have good bacteria in their guts, but they have differentgood bacteria.
Dog gut bacteria – the good ones – include enterococcus faecium and bacillus coagulans. The first helps with coat health and digestive troubles, while the second helps eliminate diarrhea and IBS.
These aren't the only good bacteria that call your fur baby home; they're just some of the more common species.
Are Probiotics Harmful to Dogs?
Bacteria can be tricky. The truth is that human probiotics thrive off the things we humans generally eat. Meanwhile, dog probiotics thrive off of the things dogs normally eat. If you feed a dog human probiotics, those probiotics aren't going to live for very long because they don't have much in the way of food.
Dog stomachs are also more acidic than ours, and their guts are shorter from end to end, so the bacteria don't have as much time to flourish; they'll just be digested and expelled.
So, if you give your fur baby some of your probiotics – or they get into a tub of yogurt or sauerkraut and gulp it down – it isn't really going to hurt them. It just won't do them any good, and it might cause them some mild digestive distress.
Important note: be sure to check the ingredients of any probiotic your dog eats when they shouldn't. For example, some yogurts swap out added sugar for xylitol as a sweetener. Xylitol, as you likely know, is toxic to dogs, so while the probiotic yogurt isn't harmful, the xylitol is.
Are There Canine Probiotics?
As I mentioned above, there are specific bacteria that have been isolated as the probiotics of the dog world.
The biggest difference is that they're generally only available in the form of supplements. There's no "dog yogurt" made with dog-friendly gut bacteria because those bacteria don't eat the same kinds of things and won't have the same effect on fermentation.
Supplements are the best way to get these probiotics for a dog.
Note: there are a handful of foods and treats on the market that claim to be probiotics and may even list the bacteria they contain as part of their ingredients. While they may include those bacteria, they may not actually be probiotics.
The reason is processing. Bacteria need to be alive to reproduce and thrive. Cooking a food into a shelf-stable kibble or processing it into a treat is likely to kill off that bacteria, simply as part of the process of preventing bad bacteria from reproducing in the same environment.
If you want food or treats with probiotics in them, you need something that isn't baked or processed, which can be harder to find. Some exist, but you should check for independent lab verification of the probiotics they contain, not just trust a label.
So, now that you know what probiotics are (and more or less how they can be beneficial in broad strokes), what are the actual specific benefits of probiotics for dogs?
Truthfully, there are a lot, but they all come down to one thing: digestion.
Probiotics help smooth out the digestive process. In dogs, that means they'll be more regular and have more consistent bowel movements, and they'll be less likely to have diarrhea or other digestive upsets.
There are also a bunch of secondary benefits. With healthy, beneficial bacteria dominating their digestive systems, their immune systems don't have to worry so much about bad bacteria in the gut and can take it easier, and be stronger if something else comes along. They'll be a bit more resistant to getting sick.
You can also consider a secondary benefit related to stress. If their tummy doesn't hurt, they aren't going to be as stressed out, right? Stress relief and anxiety relief are both great benefits of probiotics.
Finally, probiotics counteract antibiotic side effects. So, if your fur baby is sick with an infection and needs systemic antibiotics (as opposed to antibiotic creams or ointments), then probiotics can help them recover that much faster.
Does Your Fur Baby Need Probiotics?
So, does your fur baby even need probiotics? There are two schools of thought on this question.
The first is that probiotics should be a passive supplement. They aren't harmful, and if a dog gets too much of them, they'll just excrete them. So, there's no real harm that can be done from having too many probiotics, but having too few bacteria can be harmful. Why not include a probiotic supplement as part of your fur baby's daily routine?
While this is a reasonable school of thought, it's not strictly necessary. If your dog is healthy and isn't stressed out, chances are they'll be fine with their digestive system the way it is. You can give them a supplement, but that supplement isn't going to do much, and you're spending money on it. While probiotics aren't terribly expensive, they also aren't free; that added cost can tally up over time.
The other school of thought is to watch for signs that your fur baby might need probiotics and give them when necessary. So, when might that be?
When they're stressed, or likely to become stressed, such as in the days leading up to the 4th of July or after a big move that uproots their daily patterns.
When they're suffering from some sort of digestive upset, whether they ate something they shouldn't have and it's going through them with a little difficulty, or they've got the canine equivalent of the stomach flu.
When they have signs of something wrong in their digestive system, like foul breath, bad gas, or bloating. Even if it's not terribly bad, it can be a sign of something operating at less than 100%.
All of these are good causes for giving your fur baby some probiotics. You can give them some each day according to the dosage instructions on whatever kind of probiotic you get and keep going until they're no longer suffering from the ill effects of whatever befell them.
The final reason to give a dog probiotics is, of course, when they're on or finishing up a course of antibiotics. It's not likely necessary if you're just giving them antibiotic eyedrops, eardrops, or a cream for a skin infection, but if they're getting systemic antibiotics, it's going to wipe out their gut flora entirely. In that case, giving them probiotics to counteract that negative side effect can help their recovery go much quicker.
There's a third school of thought, which is that probiotics should only be given on a vet's recommendations. Truthfully, this is basically going to limit them to just that final reason, as a post-hoc treatment for antibiotic side effects. If you're concerned, though, make sure to talk to your vet about whether or not probiotics are a good choice for your doggo.
What about you? What's your school of thought? Do you give your fur baby probiotics, and if so, what kind? Have you noticed a positive effect? How often do you give them? I want to know all about your experiences, so you can share them with me and everyone else right here in the comments!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more