Probiotics for Cats: Supplemental or Unnecessary?

When changing your cat’s food doesn’t help clear up certain symptoms, consider talking with your vet about probiotics.

Probiotics might help with health issues. By: Michael McComb
Probiotics may help with health issues. By: Michael McComb

Our Gremlin is 12 years old. He has always had litter box issues. Or, at least we thought they were litter box issues, given that he had lost his mom when he was young. After all, mom-cats teach their kittens bathroom etiquette, right?

We were wrong. Not about the mom-cat thing but about its being the root of this particular problem. Gremlin had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Many cats get turned in to shelters for precisely this reason.

In fact, it is the leading reason for abandonment and euthanasia, according to Cynthia Jones of the Zimmer Feline Foundation. “Older cat caregivers sometimes choose to euthanize the cat when cleaning a soiled house becomes too taxing and there seems to be no solution to the problem. Appropriate diagnosis and treatment of house soiling problems is of great importance for this reason.”

Changing the Food

Jean Neilson’s Kali, a flamepoint Siamese, has had gastrointestinal issues since she was 2 years old. At first, it just seemed to be the occasional loose stool. Within 1 month, however, blood began appearing in the stool.

“I took her to the vet,” Neilson recalls, “and they said they didn’t really know and to try her on a different food. So we tried all the popular brands of wet food and the same with the dry food. Chicken was her favorite, so just about all the wet food was chicken. She just seemed to get worse.”

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The veterinarian then put Kali on prednisone to help her insides calm down. They didn’t. The next step involved deep-sixing the prednisone and putting Kali on Royal Canin HP, which she loved.

Wren, Wendy Ratza’s Abyssinian, began having diarrhea when she was switched from Royal Canin kitten food to Science Diet. Her vet gave the cat both an antibiotic and a probiotic. And Ratza changed Wren’s food to a grain-free one.

The food part of the puzzle is an important one. But it’s not the only one. That’s where probiotics come in.

A More Proactive Approach

The focus in veterinary medicine used to be on antibiotics. Unfortunately, they have their drawbacks. Plus, antibiotics generally come into the picture only after the problem has occurred.

So vets are taking a hard look at the “otics” — prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics:

  1. Prebiotics are “nondigestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of beneficial bacteria in the colon,” explains Dr. Sherry Sanderson of the University of Georgia. “The most common prebiotic found in the diets of dogs and cats is dietary fiber.”
  2. Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria. Although the use of probiotics is still relatively in small animal practice, Sanderson observes, cats and dogs experience “a lot of the same benefits” that humans do. Probiotics have also proven themselves to be very effective in dealing with diarrhea caused by stress.
  3. Synbiotics are a combination of prebiotics and probiotics. The prebiotic gives the probiotic organisms a much better shot at survival.

Probiotic Pros and Cons

Jodi Ziskin, a certified pet nutrition consultant, agrees that cats “require probiotics that can survive the strong acids produced in their stomachs. That’s why it’s so important to use a product especially made for pets.”

But she’s not particularly wild about probiotics that contain prebiotics because of the complex sugars in them. The complex sugars “also feed the bad bacteria,” she says, “so it’s a good idea avoid them.”

You have to go into this prepared for a certain amount of trial and error. We’ve tried Gremlin on both Fortiflora and Feline Comfort with varying results. Neilson’s Kali did better with a probiotic for cats and dogs. The probiotic designed just for cats had 2 percent more fat in it and gave her “terrible diarrhea.”

Cartoonist and blogger Coco Koh has tried several probiotics for Tessie, her Burmilla variant, and Jake, her male Aby. She started them out with Fortiflora but switched to ProBios, which “is the cheapest and comes in a 5-pound canister” on Amazon.com for around $48 (affiliate link).

“Tessie and Jake seem to be better off with the probiotics,” Koh concludes. “Of course, with 4 cats, it’s hard to tell whose poop is whose, but everyone seems to be doing well.”

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This pet health content was reviewed by a veterinarian.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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