Prebiotics and their advantages to veterinary medicine - Veterinary Practice
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Prebiotics and their advantages to veterinary medicine

THE digestive system of animals is home to millions of microflora and approximately 400 different species of micro-organism inhabit the gut, which have a symbiotic relationship with the host animal. A combination of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut is normal; however, an imbalance can be caused by disease, changes in diet, stress (e.g. from travelling, kennelling and showing), old age or antibiotic therapy. Pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria compete for adhesion sites on the gut wall and an increase in the pathogen population can compromise local immunity in the gastrointestinal tract which is a key barrier against infection.

THE use of both prebiotics and probiotics in human foods is commonplace following the launch of Activia yoghurt by Danone in 2006 and the functional food industry appears to be booming with sales of Activia growing by as much as 32% last year.1

While many people are accustomed to the regular use of prebiotics and probiotics to help reduce their digestive discomfort, this more holistic approach is only now being pioneered in the veterinary industry.

Whilst the role of probiotics is well established, many vets are not considering the role of prebiotics in the promotion of gut health. The aim of this article is to shed a bit more light on the potential advantages of prebiotics in veterinary medicine.


Probiotics have been defined as “live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.2

From the Greek “pro” meaning “for” and “bios” meaning “life”, probiotics benefit the dog by helping to improve its gut microflora balance, which is essential for gastrointestinal immunity. Indeed, the probiotic Enterococcus faecium produces lactic acid which lowers the gut pH, making it less sustainable for E. coli and Salmonella spp.3,4

Systemic effects of their use, including prevention of recurrent UTI, treatment of pancreatitis, oxalate urolithiasis, modulation of allergic disease and other conditions have been investigated in humans5 and increasingly probiotics have a role in the management of gastrointestinal conditions in dogs.


Prebiotics are non-digestive carbohydrates that can help to stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the dog’s gut and are defined as “a selectively fermented ingredient that allows specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora that confers benefits upon host well-being and health”.6

The most common prebiotics are oligosaccharides, which are naturally occurring carbohydrates found in foods such as fruit, vegetables, including leeks and artichokes and cereals. They are made up of complex sugar molecules which specifically resist digestion by mammalian enzymes and so reach the large intestine intact. Those containing fructose are known as FructoOligoSaccharides (FOS) and those containing mannose are MannanOligoSaccharides (MOS).

On reaching the large intestine, FOS and MOS are fermented by colonic bacteria such as Bifidobacteri a. The result of the fermentation process is short-chain fatty acids (SAFCs) such as lactic and acetic acid. Butyrate, another acid often found in increased quantities with the feeding of prebiotics, is not produced by the lactic acid bacteria, but is a product of other bacteria which can use the lactic and acetic acids as substrates. A symbiotic collection of beneficial bacteria is formed, which helps to outnumber and exclude pathogens.

Prebiotics may play a role in host defences and immunomodulation. Butyrate resulting from prebiotic fermentation may also inhibit the growth of colonic cancer cells in vitro.7

In addition, energy balance within the gut can be affected by the gut flora, with the SCFA butyrate being a direct energy source for colonocytes. This may help to treat inflammatory bowel conditions in humans as they can restore the metabolic function of the cells and accelerate repair of the intestinal wall by helping mucosa integrity. They have also been shown to contribute to a direct down regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines and other reactive mediators.7 While probiotics are shorteracting, as the bacteria are quickly broken down, prebiotics lead to longer-term gut health by feeding the good bacteria and allowing the dog to develop its own bacterial population.8

FOS and MOS in dogs

Research into the use of prebiotics in healthy adult dogs revealed that feeding a combination of FOS and MOS had a beneficial effect on gut health and immunity. Prebiotics also decreased putrefactive compounds in faeces.9 By combining the use of prebiotics and probiotics, dogs may benefit from the positive effects of good bacteria which can improve overall gastrointestinal health in dogs.8

  2. Nomoto, K. (2005) Prevention of infections by probiotics. J Biosci Bioeng 100: 583-592.
  3. Marcinakova, M., Strompfova, S. and Laukova, A. (2006) Oral application of Enterococcus faecium strain EE3 in healthy dogs. Folia Microbiol (Praha) 51 (3): 239-242.
  4. Naughton, P., Mikkelsen, L. and Jensen, B. (2001) Effects of Nondigestible Oligosaccharides on Salmonella enterica serovar typhimurium and Nonpathogenic Escherichia coli in the Pig Small Intestine In Vitro. Applied andEnvironmental Microbiology 67 (8): 3,391-3,395.
  5. Wynn, S. G. (2009) Probiotics in veterinary practice. JAVMA 234: 606-613.
  6. Roberfroid, M. B. (2007) Prebiotics: The Concept Revisited. J Nutr. 137: 830S.
  7. Delphine, M. A. et al. (2009) Mechanisms of Probiosis and Prebiosis: Considerations for Enhanced Functional Foods. Curr Opin Biotechnol. 20 (2): 135-141.
  8. Swanson, et al. (2002) Fructo-oligosaccharides and Lactobacillus acidophilus modify gut microbial populations, total tract nutrient digestibilities and fecal protein catabolite concentrations in health adult dogs. The Journal of Nutrition 3,721-3,731.

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