Prebiotics For Dogs – Why Probiotics May Not Be Enough

With only one alphabet to differ one term from another, it is not surprising how some people can get prebiotics mixed up with probiotics. Both are very different things.

However, they are inter-connected in a very important way. Both play essential roles in the health of a dog’s digestive system. Read on to know why giving your dog just probiotics may not be enough.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are a type of nutraceutical or supplement, comprising a few types of soluble fiber. As the name suggests, soluble fiber can be broken down, fermented, and turned into food for bacteria.

There is also insoluble fiber, but it is not a prebiotic.  Insoluble fiber cannot be broken down or fermented. It is larger and coarser so it simply passes through your digestive system as roughage.

What are dog prebiotics made from?

Prebiotics are found only in plant matter. They are extracted from many kinds of fruits and vegetables, especially those that contain resistant starch.

Resistant starch is a carbohydrate that resists digestion in the small intestine. Because of that, it ferments in the large intestine. These fermenting fibers act as a prebiotic and feed specific bacteria in the gut. 

What do prebiotics do for dogs?

1. Act as food for probiotics

Since prebiotics are food for intestinal bacteria, they don’t do anything directly for the dog. Instead, prebiotics help to feed the bacteria in its gut.

Having the right insoluble fibers or prebiotics in the intestine helps beneficial bacteria to survive and increase its numbers enough to do an effective job. Beneficial bacteria help dogs digest their food properly and protect the digestive tract.

These bacteria are sometimes lacking in dogs which have an imbalanced gut flora. Some dogs are born with this imbalance, some develop it from puppyhood and some develop it after a bout of antibiotics.

Although antibiotics are usually prescribed for a specific reason, they destroy or kill any bacteria that they come in contact with in the gut, regardless of whether the bacteria is beneficial or harmful.

2. Strengthen intestinal lining

The right prebiotic is resistant to the strong digestive juices in the stomach and small intestines. Only then can it stay long enough in the system for bacteria to break it apart and ferment it. This process releases short-chain fatty acids (SFCAs). 

SCFAs inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. They also act as a source of energy for colon cells as well as preserve electrolyte and fluid balance. This then allows the intestines to move matter properly.

Prebiotics are also essential components for intestinal cells to create a lining. This lining helps to keep bacteria within the intestinal tract and doesn’t allow bacteria to travel to areas of the body where they shouldn’t be. This includes harmful bacteria and other pathogens.

3. Strengthens immune system

Dogs regularly fed with prebiotics are less likely to get diarrhea caused by the overgrowth of bad bacteria. Prebiotics also enhance the immune system of puppies through their mother’s milk. This in turn enhances their response to vaccines.

Types of dog prebiotics

Fiber is basically a form of complex carbohydrate. The carbohydrates that are most frequently used as a prebiotic belong to two classes of fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS). They are oligofructose and inulin. Oligofructose undergoes fermentation fairly quickly in the colon, providing nourishment to the bacteria in that area.  

Common prebiotics are:

  •   Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS)
  •   Mannan oligosaccharides (MOS)
  •   Galactooligosaccharides (GOS)
  •   Inulin

Studies have shown that adding FOS and fructose-based inulins to the diet has generally positive effects on a dog’s health and its microflora health.

Supplements for prebiotics come in a few forms:

  •   Powder
  •   Soft chews
  •   Pills or tablets
  •   Capsules

Note: a capsule consists of powder or jelly enclosed in a dissolvable plastic container. A tablet is a compressed powder in solid form. Tablets are coated with sugar or similar substances, which means the materials contained in them will not immediately enter the blood-stream.

Natural prebiotics for dogs

There is some hype about using yogurt or other fermented food products, such as kimchee, as a prebiotic. There are actually no studies that prove this as effective.

There are, however, some foods that are natural prebiotics. Caution should be practiced, though. You should not douse your dog’s meals with these ingredients just because they are good for health.

Here are 6 natural sources of prebiotics:

1. Mushrooms

These are rich in carbohydrates like chitin, hemicellulose, beta-glucans, mannans, xylans, and galactans. In addition to that, they have immune-boosting, anti-cancer, anti-tumor and anti-allergy properties. 

2. Chicory Root

It is high in the prebiotic fiber inulin. This root is naturally semi-sweet so it’s not hard to get your dog to eat it.

3. Garlic

Large amounts of garlic – like whole heads of garlic – is toxic to dogs. In tiny amounts, it is beneficial for your dog.

4. Larch Arabinogalactan

Small amounts of this fiber is found in carrots, pears, corn, coconut, shiitake mushrooms as well as herbs like echinacea and astragalus.

5. Burdock Root

It has the same high levels of inulin as chicory root.

6. Dandelion Greens

These have a high level of inulin. Dandelion is also an excellent whole food source of vitamins and minerals.

Difference between prebiotics and probiotics

The key difference is that a prebiotic is a non-living thing and a probiotic is a living thing. A prebiotic is a non-soluble fibre or complex carbohydrate that serves as food for bacteria. A probiotic is a bacterium that lives in a dog’s digestive tract. It is as simple as that.

Benefits of mixing prebiotics with probiotics

When prebiotics are mixed with probiotics in a single supplement, you call it a synbiotic. Effectiveness of a synbiotic is far greater than that of prebiotics or probiotics given in isolation.

Why is this so?

1. Prebiotics help probiotics thrive

Probiotics are live microorganisms. They are easily destroyed in a dog’s gut. Without enough nutrition, they die off faster and cannot reproduce enough to replace bad bacteria.

Sometimes a dog’s diet or regular meal does not contain enough prebiotic for good bacteria to thrive. In this scenario, giving the dog just probiotics is like sending a soldier off to war without food supplies and ammunition. 

2. The domino effect

When the bacteria break down prebiotics or insoluble fibres, SFCAs are released. SFCAs prevent bad bacteria from multiplying and help the cells in the colon to function better.

On top of that, the bacterial populations that benefit dogs such as lactobacilli, bifidobacteria, and enterococci, transform some sugars into lactic and acetic acids. These acids lower the pH in the intestinal tract and inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria.

Some bacteria help to minimize adherence to the intestinal walls. As a result, bad bacteria find it hard to multiply in the intestine.

The small intestine usually has less microflora than the colon and less protection from bad pathogens. Consumption of synbiotics can help dogs improve the microflora in their small intestines.

In conclusion, pairing prebiotics with probiotics may actually give a better chance for probiotics to survive and have a more positive effect on the dog's microbiota.

Since a dog's digestive tract is responsible for about 70 percent of its immune system, a healthy gut leads to a healthy dog. This is why many veterinarians often recommend giving dogs both probiotics and prebiotics to ensure maximum benefit.

When to give your dog prebiotics?

Never do this without consulting your regular veterinarian first. Only give your dog prebiotics after a proper consultation and always follow the prescription given.

Anything that is more than the prescribed amount can be counterproductive or even harmful.

Should I buy prebiotic-probiotic dog food?

Prebiotics are essentially just soluble fibre. They have been incorporated in dog food for decades. You don’t really need to pay a premium price for foods labelled as “prebiotic dog food”.

Probiotics, on the other hand, are a different matter. Most brands don’t include probiotics in the ingredients. And even if they do add them, there would hardly be any effect.

This is because probiotics are live bacteria. These microorganisms are sensitive to heat and moisture. When dry dog food is prepared, the ingredients have to be cooked in hot water then undergo high heat and pressure. This process would kill the bacteria.

Therefore, the answer to this question is no.

Prebiotics and probiotics for puppies

Not all puppies are born equal. Even puppies in the same litter can have different microflora in their guts. That is why some of them may benefit from one bacteria while others benefit from another.

Puppies’ intestinal bacterial balance begins forming when their mother licks them. During these initial few weeks of life, the puppies accumulate bacteria passed on by their mother. Puppies that are orphaned or are taken too early from their mother can benefit from a synbiotic supplement.

Without this bacterial cocktail, puppies tend to have a weaker immune system. Thus, it can be said that probiotics have an immune-boosting effect.

If they have diarrhea, it can be dangerous because their immune system is still fragile. Giving puppies synbiotics can help to stabilize their gastrointestinal tracts.

Can I mix prebiotics with probiotics on my own?

Yes, if you are a veterinarian or animal nutritionist. Otherwise, it is not advisable because you might end up doing more harm than good.

Even though synbiotics supposedly improve digestion, they may aggravate certain digestive-related conditions. Your vet is the best person to tell you which condition warrants treatment with synbiotics or prebiotics or probiotics. Giving more of one or the other may cause more imbalance.

Also, if your dog has IBD, IBS, leaky gut, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and other issues, it’s microflora is already imbalanced. Pumping its guts with either more bacteria (probiotics) or more prebiotics might just worsen the situation. Too much insoluble fiber can also speed up intestinal movement and reduce mineral absorption.

How to choose a good product for my dog?

Firstly, the label on the product must list all the ingredients contained in the supplement. There should be no spelling errors for the scientific names of the ingredients. The ingredient panel should list the fiber source of fructo-oligosaccharides or inulin.

If you are buying a probiotic-prebiotic mix, make sure the label also lists down all the live bacteria that it contains and the bacteria count.  A good product would not contain additives or fillers.

Digest-All Plus


Giving your dog a synbiotic supplement can keep its intestines, colon, stomach, immune system and overall digestion running well. Nonetheless, this must be done with caution and only after consultation with the vet.


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