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Effective Probiotics for Our Furry Friends

June 19, 2023

Over the past decade, the importance of probiotics to human health has become popular knowledge. Foods are labeled for their probiotic content and sales of probiotic supplements have been on the rise[1].

Because of this, pet owners are starting to understand the importance of probiotics for the health of their furry friends. More people than ever are taking probiotics, and those who do so are more likely to give their pets probiotics. In the USA, 24% of pet owners say they give their pets probiotics, and 30% plan to give more in the future[2].

For almost 150 years, Chr. Hansen has provided starter cultures and other beneficial microorganisms to the food industry. Here, we offer insight into probiotics for pet food and explore how manufacturers can cater to consumers’ growing interest by using probiotic strains selected for their specific benefits.

Understanding Probiotics

Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when fed in adequate quantities, confer a health benefit to the host animal[3]. To be alive at the time of consumption, probiotics must be able to withstand the rigors of manufacturing, packaging, distribution, and feeding, and, to confer a benefit on their host animal, they must be able to survive the digestive processes that they encounter after being consumed.  Therefore, it is essential to understand exactly how the probiotics are going to be provided to our pets, e.g., in dry kibble, wet food, or treats, so that we can choose the best types of organisms to meet the previously mentioned criteria.

Strain Matters

All living things can be classified using a hierarchical system developed by zoologists. Every organism is part of a kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. For “good” probiotic bacteria, genus and species are important, but it’s strain, the next classification after species, that really matters. By definition, a strain is an individual organism and all its trillions and trillions of identical copies. Each strain has a unique set of genetic “gifts” that can make it better or worse at being probiotic.  Our job is to pick the best strain of bacteria for a particular purpose.

An easy way to understand this is to think about dogs. It is a fact that all domesticated dogs are the same genus and species, however, we all recognize that individual dogs may be better suited to particular purposes than other dogs. For example, if you want a dog to help you rescue skiers, then a talented, obedient St. Bernard would be a more appropriate choice than a loveable, but skittish Lhasa Apso.  If you could somehow identify the absolute best St. Bernard for the job and clone her, then you would have an ideal strain.

With one of the world’s largest commercial collections of bacteria—over 50,000 strains—we look for and find good bacteria that are effective for a particular purpose and safe. Each of our pet probiotics is a unique combination of strains that are not found anywhere else in the market.

The Gut Microbiota

Animals depend on the collection of microbes in their guts to maintain digestion and overall health. The digestive system houses trillions and trillions of organisms that are referred to collectively as the microbiota. The microbiota is extremely diverse in the intestines, with the colon having one of the highest recorded concentrations of microbes of any place on Earth[4]

These gut microorganisms fall into three categories[5]:

Over the course of their evolution, gut microbes have competed for resources and developed strategies to succeed in their microenvironments. Many of their evolved solutions provide benefits to their host. 

What Do Probiotics Do?

Scientific research has produced strong evidence that the modes of action of effective probiotics fall into three main categories: interaction with other gut microbes, interaction with the host, and interaction with food[6].  Through these types of interactions, effective probiotics, like those from Chr. Hansen, support all of the normal functions of the gut, namely, digestion of nutrients from food, absorption of those nutrients by a healthy gut lining, the barrier functions that keep harmful things out of the body, and immune functions that enable animals to resist challenges. 

Interactions with other gut microbes

Adding probiotics to the diet can increase the diversity of microorganisms in the digestive tract—not only through direct addition but also because these probiotics could support the growth of other beneficial bacteria. At the same time, some probiotic strains secrete diverse substances that directly inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. Lastly, some probiotic organisms have the capacity to competitively exclude potentially harmful organisms from colonizing the gut6.

Interaction with the host 

The digestive tract is basically a tube that runs through the body, from the mouth to the opening at the other end. Anything inside that tube, practically speaking, is outside of the body.

One of the functions of the digestive lining is to keep things that should not enter the bloodstream from crossing it. Tight junctions between intestinal cells help maintain a physical barrier between the digestive tract and the rest of the body. If that barrier breaks down, pathogens and the toxins they produce may leak through and cause systemic responses, organ damage, and even death. Certain probiotics support the barrier function to prevent this leaky gut phenomenon from happening[7]

Seventy percent of a mammal’s immune system lives around the intestinal tract - and that makes sense[8]. Simply by living their lives—going for walks, grooming themselves, or licking dropped food from the kitchen floor—pets continually introduce potentially harmful organisms into their digestive tracts. A pet’s ability to respond to these challenges in a rapid and complete manner will keep it safe and healthy.

Probiotic organisms can help balance the immune functions of an animal to ensure that whether they experience emotional stress, physical stress, environmental stress, or disease challenge, they are better able to maintain a state of normalcy6. Probiotics help maintain normal immune function by supporting the body’s ability to find potentially harmful organisms and to mount an appropriate response against them. Certain probiotic strains can interact with cells in the intestinal lining that send signals to the immune system, resulting in the production of antibodies or activation of immune cells, like T-helper cells, which help fight off infections. 

Probiotics interact with food and can help with digestion

Pets cannot get every possible benefit from the food they eat unless their digestive system has the right combination of microorganisms and enzymes to break it down. Some of the essential enzymes are produced by probiotic bacteria.

Incorporating certain probiotic strains into pet food can help assure pet owners that they are giving their companions every chance at getting the most nutritional benefit from their diets.

Final considerations

When considering what probiotic to add to a pet product, manufacturers should consider:

To learn more, listen to The Pet Industry Podcast episode on probiotics.


[1] Probiotics Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Product (Probiotic Food & Beverages, Probiotic Dietary Supplements), By Ingredient (Bacteria, Yeast), By End Use, By Distribution Channel, And Segment Forecasts, 2021 2030. Grand View Research Report ID 978-1-68038-093-4

[2] CAWI interviews conducted in Dec 2020 by YOUGOV with 1000 dog and cat owners above 18 years old.

[3] Hill, C., Guarner, F., Reid, G. et al. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotic. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol 11, 506–514 (2014).

[4] Martinez-Guryn K, Leone V, Chang EB. Regional Diversity of the Gastrointestinal Microbiome. Cell Host Microbe. 2019 Sep 11;26(3):314-324. doi: 10.1016/j.chom.2019.08.011. PMID: 31513770; PMCID: PMC6750279.

[5] Haque SZ, Haque M. The ecological community of commensal, symbiotic, and pathogenic gastrointestinal microorganisms - an appraisal. Clin Exp Gastroenterol. 2017 May 5;10:91-103. doi: 10.2147/CEG.S126243. PMID: 28503071; PMCID: PMC5426469.

[6] Plaza-Diaz J, Ruiz-Ojeda FJ, Gil-Campos M, Gil A. Mechanisms of Action of Probiotics. Adv Nutr. 2019 Jan 1;10(suppl_1):S49-S66. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmy063. Erratum in: Adv Nutr. 2020 Jul 1;11(4):1054. PMID: 30721959; PMCID: PMC6363529.

[7] Karczewski J, Troost FJ, Konings I, Dekker J, Kleerebezem M, Brummer RJ, Wells JM. Regulation of human epithelial tight junction proteins by Lactobacillus plantarum in vivo and protective effects on the epithelial barrier. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol 2010;298:G851–9.

[8] Wiertsema SP, van Bergenhenegouwen J, Garssen J, Knippels LMJ. The Interplay between the Gut Microbiome and the Immune System in the Context of Infectious Diseases throughout Life and the Role of Nutrition in Optimizing Treatment Strategies. Nutrients. 2021 Mar 9;13(3):886. doi: 10.3390/nu13030886. PMID: 33803407; PMCID: PMC8001875.

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