Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now



Potential applications for probiotics in small animal veterinary medicine, now and in the future

Probiotics may offer many potential therapeutic applications but many questions remain unanswered

A previous article discussed the growing interest in the gastrointestinal microbiota and its many and varied roles in pet health and disease. Four key ways have been identified to manipulate the gastrointestinal microbi­ota therapeutically: antibiotics, faecal matter transplants, prebiotics and probiotics. This article will focus on current and future applications of probiotics.

Probiotics – properties and proposed mechanisms of action

Probiotics, as defined by the World Health Organization, are “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host” (WHO and FAO, 2001).

This report listed the ideal properties of a probiotic as being non-pathogenic, stable during shelf-life and resistant to temperature, resistant to gastric and intestinal digestion by acid, bile and enzymes, able to adhere to intestinal epi­thelium, able to interact with gastrointestinal flora in a posi­tive way and capable of influencing host immune responses.

Proposed mechanisms of actions for some probiotics include: reducing intestinal pH allowing beneficial bacteria which generally thrive in acidic environments to survive; destroying pathogenic bacteria and toxins; competing for essential nutrients or receptor sites required by pathogens; binding of pathogenic bacteria; or producing inhibitory anti­microbial substances such as bacteriocins and peroxides.

Although the mechanism of action of probiotics is not com­pletely understood, they are likely to exert an effect on the resident intestinal microbiota of the host and may also affect the intestinal and systemic immune system (Hart et al., 2012).

Probiotics in gastrointestinal disease

Some of the primary applications for probiotics in com­panion animals are acute and chronic gastrointestinal dis­turbances, and evidence for use of them in this context is generally strongest (Bybee et al., 2011; Lappin, 2018). In cats, Enterococcus faecium SF68 has been shown to reduce the duration of acute diarrhoea in cats housed in shelters in a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study (Bybee et al., 2011). This was a short-term study, suggesting the beneficial effect was likely from probiotic influences on intestinal microflora, rather than systemic immunomodulation. E. faecium SF68 has also been shown to have benefits in acute diarrhoea in kittens (Czarnecki-Maulden et al., 2007). A multi-strain synbi­otic administered to cats with chronic diarrhoea resulted in improvements in mean faecal score based on a standardised faecal scoring system, and 72 percent of owners perceived an improvement in their cat’s diarrhoea after a 21-day course of synbiotic supplementation (Hart et al., 2012) although there was no control group in this study.

In dogs, E. faecium SF68 has been shown to have benefits for canine stress-related diarrhoea (Gore and Reynolds, 2012). E. faecium 4b1707 has also been associated with a better clinical outcome compared to a placebo in dogs with acute, uncomplicated diarrhoea, where dogs in the treatment group receiving the probiotic had on average a 15-hour shorter duration of diarrhoea (Nixon et al., 2019). Although this was concluded to be of limited clinical rele­vance, fewer dogs in the treatment group required addi­tional medical intervention for non-improvement or wors­ening. This is potentially of more clinical relevance, since it suggests probiotics could have the potential to decrease the use of antimicrobials – one of the main medical inter­ventions which might otherwise be considered.

In canine inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), use of a multi-strain probiotic VSL#3, containing four strains of Lac­tobacillus, three strains of Bifidobacterium and one strain of Streptococcus thermophilus, appeared to confer some protective effects to dogs, with a significant decrease in clin­ical and histological scores and a decrease in CD3+ T-cell infiltration (Rossi et al., 2014). Protection was associated with an enhancement of regulatory T-cell markers in dogs receiv­ing the probiotic, and this was not seen in dogs receiving a combination therapy of prednisolone and metronidazole. A normalisation of dysbiosis after long-term therapy was also observed in the probiotic group. This study indicated the potential immunomodulatory effects of probiotics.

Probiotics may also have potential benefits in constipa­tion. A pilot study with a multi-strain probiotic containing Lactobacillus spp. and Bifidobacterium spp. was conducted in cats with chronic constipation refractory to traditional therapy (Rossi et al., 2018). Treated cats showed significant clinical improvement and biopsies of the colonic mucosa showed improvements in the feline chronic enteropathy activity index and mucosal histology scores, suggesting a potential anti-inflammatory effect of the probiotic.

A final application for probiotics impacting gastrointes­tinal clinical signs in companion animals is their potential role to help ameliorate the negative impacts that some anti­biotics – given for gastrointestinal disease or other reasons – may have on the microbiome. E. faecium SF68 has been shown to both offer benefits to companion animals with diarrhoea in the presence of concurrent antibiotic admin­istration (Fenimore et al., 2017) and potentially ameliorate adverse side-effects of a commonly administered antibiotic in cats (Torres-Henderson et al., 2017).

Applications of probiotics beyond the gastrointestinal tract

There is also evidence that some probiotics may induce immune-modulating effects with potential benefits reaching beyond the gastrointestinal tract, including helpful roles in the management of atopy and infectious diseases with systemic involvement in companion animals including feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV-1). In one placebo-controlled study of cats with chronic FHV-1, cats were administered either the probiotic E. faecium SF68 or a palatability enhancer as a placebo. When mild stress was induced, cats supple­mented with the probiotic had significantly fewer episodes of conjunctivitis compared to the placebo group, suggesting the probiotic lessened morbidity associated with chronic FHV-1 infection (Lappin et al., 2009). The test group also demonstrated a more stable faecal microbiome. In chronic kidney disease (CKD), increased concentrations of uraemic toxins may contribute to intestinal dysbiosis. The probiotic VSL#3 has demonstrated benefits in, for example, increas­ing glomerular filtration rate and degree of proteinuria in dogs with CKD, although there was no improvement in the degree of azotaemia (Lippi et al., 2017). In azotaemic cats with CKD, serum urea nitrogen and creatinine concentra­tions decreased after administration of a probiotic for 60 days (Palmquist, 2006). However, concurrent treatments varied and the relationship to quality of life and survival time was unclear. The potential application of probiotics to aid treatment in chronic kidney disease is a particularly interesting area that warrants more research before any clear recommendations can be made.

Probiotics have also been looked at when considering anxiety in dogs. In one placebo-controlled, crossover study conducted with anxious Labrador Retrievers, administration of the probiotic Bifidobacterium longum BL999 appeared to reduce anxious behaviours including barking, jumping, spinning and pacing and reactivity to strangers (McGowan, 2016). Physiological changes including lower cortisol responses to stresses were also noted.

How can veterinarians increase the likelihood that a particular probiotic may have benefits in individual patients?

Whilst the above discussion has focused on studies where probiotics appear to have been found to have beneficial effects, in the context of gastrointestinal health or extrain­testinal diseases, it is important to highlight that not all studies have found this (Jensen and Bjørnvad, 2019). There are a number of challenges associated with interpretation of the efficacy of a particular probiotic, both in the research setting and in clinical practice. Variability in the species, strains and dose rates of probiotics can lead to differing results, especially since each probiotic strain will have specific properties which may make it useful for a particu­lar phenotype. When considering use in gastrointestinal disturbances, diarrhoea – whether acute or chronic – can have multiple causes so it can be difficult to apply a single product to a whole range of different diseases. The initial variability in test animals’ microbiomes may also impact on study findings. As with the use of probiotics in humans with gastrointestinal diseases, the effectiveness of supplemen­tation in veterinary patients is likely to depend on the com­bination of appropriate cases with specific probiotic strains (Hart et al., 2012), and it would be potentially useful to iden­tify clinical criteria that would predict perceived therapeutic success, or failure, prior to initiation of supplementation. Unfortunately, there is still a relative lack of research in this area. Within a clinical context, probiotics are often used as part of a multimodal approach where it is difficult for clini­cians to determine their individual impact on any improve­ment in the animal.

Are all probiotics created equal?

Unfortunately, there is great variability in the quality and potential efficacy of different probiotic products available within the veterinary profession, and the focus for the authorisation of most probiotics is based only on provision of nutritional support for animals in good health. Clinicians should critically assess the evidence for the particular strain and preparation of probiotic being marketed, since some probiotics have strong evidence for efficacy, whilst for others, the evidence is scant. Only a small number of veterinary-authorised probiotic products have shown effi­cacy in controlled studies and this should be a key factor in selection (Lappin, 2018). Probiotics should be purchased from a reputable company with excellent quality control and that supports research of their product efficacy. One study of commercially available products demonstrated that many probiotic labels were inaccurate: only 4 out of 15 products that had specific claims of viable organisms met or exceeded their label claim, and only two of these also had an acceptable label which accurately described the contents (Weese and Martin, 2011). Thus, deficiencies in veterinary probiotic quality remain. Where possible, a pro­biotic product should be selected that has been tested and shown success in the same species in providing the right nutritional support for the condition it is being used in. It is not enough to know the species of bacteria in the probiotic product: the specific bacterial strain is very important, as different strains can have very different effects.

Unanswered questions

Nutritional support in the form of supplements such as probiotics show great potential and may have roles in both acute and chronic diarrhoea, ameliorating the adverse side-effects encountered with some antibiotics, decreasing anxiety and modulating the immune system. Probiotics may offer many potential therapeutic applications and is an exciting and rapidly developing area of research; however, many questions remain unanswered. It is not yet known if multi-strain probiotics are more effective than single-strain probiotics, since different bacteria may have counteractive effects, and we still do not know which particular probiotic may be of most benefit for pets presenting with different disease conditions. The optimum dose of probiotics has also not been identified. More, larger scale and preferably mul­ticentre controlled studies are needed (Jensen and Bjørn­vad, 2019). It is important to remember that the types and amounts of microbes in products differ greatly, the quality of products varies and veterinarians cannot extrapolate from one product to another – just as they cannot extrap­olate the impacts different antibiotics may have. Not all probiotics are created equally and there should be critical appraisal of the evidence for efficacy before products are selected.


Bybee, S., Scorza, A. and Lappin, M.


Effect of the probiotic Enterococcus faecium SF68 on presence of diarrhea in cats and dogs housed in an animal shelter. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 25, 856-860

Czarnecki-Maulden, G. L., Cavadini, C., Lawler, D. F. and Benyacoub J.


Incidence of naturally occurring diarrhea in kittens fed Enterococcus faecium SF68. Compendium: Continuing Education for Veterinarians, 29, 37

Fenimore, A., Martin, L. and Lappin, M.


Evaluation of metronidazole with and without Enterococcus faecium SF68 in shelter dogs with diarrhea. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, 32, 100-103

Gore, A. M. and Reynolds A.


Effects of Enterococcus faecium on stress diarrhea. ACVIM Forum Proceedings, 453

Hart, M., Suchodolski, J., Steiner, J. and Webb, C.


Open-label trial of a multi-strain synbiotic in cats with chronic diarrhea. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 14, 240-245

Jensen, A. and Bjørnvad, C.


Clinical effect of probiotics in prevention or treatment of gastrointestinal disease in dogs: a systematic review. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 33, 1849- 1864

Lappin M.


Probiotics: gastrointestinal and immune stimulating effects. Gut-Brain Axis and the Immune Modulation. Purina Symposium, ECVIM Congress, Milan, 18th September

Lappin, M., Veir, J., Satyaraj, E. and Czarnecki-Maulden, G.


Pilot study to evaluate the effect of oral supplementation of Enterococcus faecium SF68 on cats with latent feline herpesvirus 1. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11, 650-654

Lippi, I., Perondi, F., Ceccherini, G., Marchetti, V. and Guidi, G.


Effects of probiotic VSL#3 on glomerular filtration rate in dogs affected by chronic kidney disease: a pilot study. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 58, 1301-1305

McGowan R.


“Oiling the brain” or “cultivating the gut”: impact of diet on anxious behavior in dogs. Proceedings of the Nestle Purina Companion Animal Nutrition Summit , Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Nixon, S., Rose, L. and Muller, A.


Efficacy of an orally administered anti‐diarrheal probiotic paste (Pro‐Kolin Advanced) in dogs with acute diarrhea: a randomized, placebo‐controlled, double‐blinded clinical study. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 33, 1286-1294

Palmquist R.


A preliminary clinical evaluation of Kibow Biotics, a probiotic agent, on feline azotemia. Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medicine Association, 24, 23–27

Rossi, G., Jergens, A., Cerquetella, M., Berardi, S., Di Cicco, E., Bassotti, G., Pengo, G. and Suchodolski, J.


Effects of a probiotic (SLAB51™) on clinical and histologic variables and microbiota of cats with chronic constipation/megacolon: a pilot study. Beneficial Microbes, 9, 101-110

Rossi, G., Pengo, G., Caldin, M., Palumbo Piccionello, A., Steiner, J., Cohen, N., Jergens, A. and Suchodolski, J.


Comparison of microbiological, histological, and immunomodulatory parameters in response to treatment with either combination therapy with prednisone and metronidazole or probiotic VSL#3 strains in dogs with idiopathic inflammatory bowel disease. PLoS ONE, 9, e94699

Torres-Henderson, C., Summers, S., Suchodolski, J. and Lappin, M.


Effect of Enterococcus faecium strain SF68 on gastrointestinal signs and fecal microbiome in cats administered amoxicillin-clavulanate. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, 32, 104-108

Weese, J. S. and Martin, H.


Assessment of commercial probiotic bacterial contents and label accuracy. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 52, 43-46



Health and nutrition properties of probiotics in food including powder milk with live lactic acid bacteria. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Evaluation of Health and Nutritional Properties of Probiotics in Food including Powder Milk with Live Aactic Acid Bacteria, Cordoba, Argentina

Ellie Groves

Ellie Groves, BA (Hons), VetMB, MRCVS, is the Veterinary Technical Manager at Purina Petcare. Since joining Purina, she has co-founded a cross-business initiative to drive advanced nutritional training, and her mission is to achieve a greater understanding of clinical nutrition in veterinary practice.

More from this author

Looking for a range of resources, insights and CPD all in one place?

Join the ALL-NEW Veterinary Practice community; the online platform with nugget-sized, CPD-accredited veterinary training and resources!

Everything you need for your professional development, delivered by experts.

One place. One login. It’s online. All the time.

Annual subscription: £299 for Vets and £199 for Vet Nurses

Subscribe Now