Many horse owners will have heard the term “probiotic” and may have used such products for their own horses or themselves – especially during treatment with antibiotics.
This is an umbrella term and describes a range of packaged microorganisms to be taken as a dietary supplement and therefore it is likely that there’s a lot of differences between various products and brands.
In this article, we want to explain what equine prebiotics and probiotics are and what they can be used for.
What Equine Probiotics Are Used For?
The basis behind using a prebiotic or probiotic is that there is a delicate balance of bacteria naturally present in the equine GI tract.
These microorganisms help to break down food and combat “bad bacteria” for space.
So, in theory, taking probiotics as a dietary supplement could help to improve digestion, GI immune function, to treat diarrhea and maybe even help to prevent colic.
What is the “gut flora”?
Like most animals, foals are born with a sterile gut, but immediately after birth, they start to accumulate microorganisms from the environment in their GI tract – particularly from their mother’s dung. This balances over time to a relatively stable population of bacteria, protozoa, yeasts, and fungi that live in the large bowel. These microorganisms are known collectively as the gut flora. Its main functions are:
- to restore the balance of gut flora when it has been altered by a bacterial or parasitic infection and treatment with antibiotics
- to treat diarrhea of unknown cause (“idiopathic diarrhea”). It should be emphasized that cases of diarrhea should be fully investigated by your veterinary before classifying them as idiopathic.
“The best candidates are horses with digestive disturbances like bloating, mild discomfort, intermittent loose manure, often intolerant of grain,” said Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD, with Equine Nutritional Solutions. “Improvement is often seen within a week.”
Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics
Prebiotics are food for these microorganisms or “good bacteria”. Most commonly it consists of carbohydrates or long chains of sugars – such as fructooligosaccharides, xylooligosaccharides, mannooligosaccharides (MOS), pectin and psyllium.
Probiotics, on the other, hand are the actual “good bacteria” themselves. There are three requirements for a product to meet for it to be considered a probiotic:
- Microorganisms in it must be alive/active.
- The product must contain taxonomically defined microorganisms.
- It must be safe for the intended use.
The most common types of equine probiotics are: Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii (S. boulardii).
Despite the popularity of these products, scientific evidence supporting their claims is quite lacking.
Future of Probiotics
Not all experts are that excited about probiotics. For instance, Dr. Frank Pellegrini (DVM, vice president of veterinary science at Freedom Health LLC of Aurora, Ohio) said that there is no particular evidence showing probiotics actually benefit either the immune system or GI tract. “Our own research indicates that there is no single normal array of gut microflora across the species. In fact, we have found that there is a significant array of different bacteria in the horse’s GI tract.”
Pellegrini noted that
each individual horse develops its own microbial population or “normal balance”, and it is “therefore difficult to comprehend how one specific product would be appropriate for all horses.”
Although there is some evidence that at least some of the products are helpful, still more research needs to be done to fully understand “if this is an overall good thing or a waste of money,” said Dr. Furr, a professor and Adelaide C. Riggs Chair in equine medicine at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center.
With more horse owners becoming conscious of the value of good digestive health of their animals, the demand for probiotics may even rise in the future, predicted Joyce Harman, DVM, member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. She believes the most exciting research in the area is being done in the human medicine world, which she believes will eventually trickle down into the veterinary world.
What is Better Than Probiotics?
A very strong natural regenerative medicine – stem cell therapy – lately is getting more attention in both human and animal medicine, especially for horses. And no wonder – the almost magical properties of this treatment makes stem cell therapy not only a great tool for treatment but also a good supplement that aids in treating many other conditions.
The active ingredient of stem cell therapy – mesenchymal stem cells – have the ability to regenerate tissue and to exert trophic, immunosuppressive, anti-inflammatory and anti-apoptotic effects, and to activate the body’s own stem/progenitor cells, modulating the local environment and thereby stimulating a local tissue repair.
Although probiotics are used widely in both human and veterinary medicine, it is certain that more research is needed in order to fully understand their benefits and appropriate uses.
But if you do feel strongly about using prebiotics or probiotics as a way to improve equine digestive health, look for a product containing S. boulardii – there is at least some scientific evidence that this is indeed helpful and not a waste of money.
Regarding prebiotics, it is important to select a product with a guaranteed analysis (GA) or GMP certification to help ensure that the content inside the container matches the product label. And make sure that the product has been stored accordingly – there’s no use for a probiotic if all the microorganisms contained are inactive.
Do not hesitate to ask your veterinarian for help and guidance when selecting dietary supplements for your horse.