Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Prebiotics, Probiotics and Gut Health for Dogs and Cats

For over two decades I've worked in the pet industry, primarily in dog and cat consumables products. That includes everything from dry dog and cat food, wet or canned dog and cat food, and dog & cat treats of every type. During this time, I've worked either as an employee or consultant to the pet industry. I've worked with manufacturers, marketers, ingredient suppliers, regulators, officials from the FDA, USDA and AAFCO, as well as nutritionists, scientists, veterinarians, distributors and retailers. It has been a fascinating journey where I've expanded my knowledge and experience along the way. I do not profess or represent myself as a nutrition expert, but after all these years I can safely say that I have a strong knowledge of dog and cat nutrition. 

There are so many choices of pet foods on the market today. It can be overwhelming to walk into a pet store and see all the choices and options. It can also be very confusing to evaluate and compare brands and products. Marketers choose to highlight various aspects of their products that they feel will appeal to their target consumer. Some brands use slick marketing claims to distract consumers from some of the less desirable aspects of their formulas. For the most part, all of this is perfectly legal, marketers know how to "walk the line" on the regulations, but essentially are only telling part of the story.

Some pet food brands have inadvertently created confusion in the marketplace with product offerings that focus on various ideas that are not based in sound nutritional studies on animal nutrition. For example, what long-term studies have been completed on feeding excessively high protein levels? Do we know what the impact is to vital organs, such as the kidney and liver? Why is super high protein perceived as "the best" when we know that excess protein simply isn't utilized by dogs and cats, and in some cases can create a heavy strain on the body.

Some pet food brands seem to leverage flexibility in pet food guidelines, for example the practice of ingredient splitting, to achieve a particular order on the ingredient label. These tactics are usually to influence the consumer that seeing a particular order of ingredients on the ingredient panel makes a formula look better than it may actually appear to be. Then there is the whole issue of ingredients. Where raw ingredients are from, the quality they truly are, how they are handled, and even how they are raised/grown/processed. Few pet food companies want to talk about this because the truth isn't something most consumers want to read. I've spent years visiting farms, ranches, meat plants, fisheries, and pet food plants. Some companies are exemplary, some are not. But how does a consumer cut through all that noise and marketing claims? it is difficult. My advice is to educate yourself as much as possible, understand that not everything you read on the Internet is true, and stay current on science and nutritional studies. 

I'd like to spend time about another trend in the pet food marketplace: Digestion.

Digestive health is an example of a common claim among pet foods. We see lots of dog and cat food brands claiming digestive health, and even "with priobiotics for digestive health". Some claim various treatments or strains of these probiotics to increase effectiveness. But is that the whole story? To illustrate my earlier point of confusion in marketing, I'll start with the topic of digestion in human health products that you will undoubtedly recognize.

In human health, we now read so much about the importance of digestive health. It turns out that digestion and our gut is far more important that we once knew. The digestive system does more than just process food we eat. It actually plays a major role in our immunity to disease. The good news is there are plenty of legitimate articles and studies to read up on this topic. Studies show that 70-80% of our immunity is based in the gut. Amazingly, the gut contains far more than 100 million neurons more than the spinal cord, which is why some refer to the gut as the "second brain". Just these two tidbits alone help us better understand the facts around digestion and gut health. Marketers have quickly developed a huge range of products to meet the need of consumers to have better gut health. Lots of people are buying products with probiotics, such as yogurt and supplements to help their keep their digestive system healthy and balanced. And with good reason, an imbalance in the gut can cause digestive disorders, such as colitis, gas, bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome. 

We all know what it is like when our digestive system is unhappy, so these new products can bring welcome benefits. However, do consumers understand how probiotics work? Probiotics are a dietary supplement containing live bacteria that adds to the beneficial bacteria normally present in the gastrointestinal tract. They are living organisms that must remain alive in order to work. Probiotics can be diminished or even die completely when exposed to heat, long periods of time, and acidity. If you are buying a probiotic supplement, it should really be refrigerated in the store, to ensure it keep the organisms alive. If you are buying a product that is at room temperature, the probiotics my be all dead, or significantly diminished by the time you start consuming them. So, probiotics are good and they will help but they have limitations. When you take the time to read the science behind the digestive system, we learn that a combination of prebiotics and probiotics are actually the best combination. 

Prebiotics are a non-digestible food ingredient that promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract. They enable growth & activity of good bacteria that populate the gastrointestinal tract. Prebiotics are not affected by time, temperature or acidity. Prebiotic fibers ferment during digestion and grow beneficial bacteria in the gut (digestive tract). These beneficial bacteria add to any normal probiotics that naturally occur. So if you also take probiotic supplements or yogurts, they work better

You can see how knowing this additional information can help you truly get the benefit of this technology. But if you only know part of the information (ie, what is just on a label) you might be led to believe that all you need is a probiotic and you will magically have a healthy gut.

Back to pet foods...nearly everything I just described above holds true for dogs and cats. Our digestive systems are remarkable similar in how they function. I've done a fair bit of reading up on this subject, and have worked closely with some of the leading scientists in the world. Here are a few facts that I have learned:
  • The gut plays a key role in natural immunity to disease, and maintaining a healthy gut can contribute to a healthy dog or cat. 
  • Scientists believe that gut health can help the body through metabolism and symbiotic synergy with prebiotics. 
  • Your pet needs bacteria in the gut for a variety of reasons, such as healthy digestion, gut function, and more. 
  • Having a diverse blend of prebiotics provides nourishment for the gut bacteria, which in turn nourishes the entire body. 
  • Keeping your pet’s immune system strong through healthy digestion and overall gut health.
My opinion:
In the example I cited above about human digestion and the rise of probiotics, you know that they need to stay alive in order to work. So why do so many pet food brands use probiotics in pet foods when we now know that they can die off quickly, especially when exposed to heat (trucking, warehouses, etc) not to mention over time. By the time a bag of pet food goes from manufacturing to distribution, to warehouses, trucking to retailers, storage rooms, sitting on the shelf, then finally to your home, how much of those probiotic living organisms are still alive? Well, probably not much. So what can you do? Well, lets go back to the facts. The facts I shared above about prebiotic ingredients is useful. Pet foods with prebiotic ingredients can help nourish the gut and help produce beneficial bacteria that will work synergistically with probiotics that are naturally in the digestive tract.

Don't take my word for it, read up on some of the significant and extensive studies that have been completed for animal health. Here are just a few articles on fiber and gut health:

My Connection
I have spent the past few years following all this research on the role of fiber in animal health and its benefit to the digestive system through prebiotics. I like the fact that there is a body of clear, compelling studies that are science-based. I always prefer to be part of companies and projects that are truthful and fact based, not just marketing hype. That's why I have been so proud to work on the new line of Lucy Pet Formulas for Life with the  P.B.F. Prebiotic Balanced Fiber ™ technology. The nutritional formulas are based on sound scientific nutrition. It is no secret to readers that I am part of Lucy Pet. I am proud to share my knowledge and experience in pet nutrition here on my own blog, and I am writing to help readers make informed decisions about choosing a pet food. In the coming weeks, I'll be sharing more details on these incredible new Lucy Pet Foods for dogs and cats. They will be available in select pet specialty stores nationwide. Right now we are getting ready for production and will soon introduce the line at an industry trade show. In the meantime, my advice to all pet parents is to educate yourself on the food you are feeding your dog or cat. Be sure it offers the very best nutrition possible.

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