If you have even a passing interest in equine nutrition, you’ve probably heard of probiotics. These mixtures of bacteria and yeast are designed to aid a horse’s digestion by restoring the balance of gut microflora disturbed as a result of illness, stress or medication. (Prebiotics, on the other hand, are compounds that serve as food for beneficial microbes in the gut, supporting their growth and activity.)
The scientific data on probiotics are mixed, but these products are worth a try in a few situations:
• To give a young horse’s digestive system a head start. It can take some time for foals to acquire intestinal flora from their environment. A probiotic can help populate the gut more quickly.
• After a horse has received oral antibiotics. Medications that kill harmful bacteria sometimes do collateral damage to beneficial organisms, which probiotics can help offset. But do not give probiotics with antibiotics—you can interfere with the medication’s action and the beneficial bacteria in the probiotic may be killed off. After the course of antibiotics is finished, however, a probiotic may aid in faster recovery.
Click here to learn what your veterinarian wants you to know about antibiotics.
• To compensate for the effects of stress caused by dietary changes, travel or competition. To give probiotics time to colonize, it is best to start administration two to three days ahead of the stressful event and continue until it is over.
• To re-balance gut flora in horses susceptible to chronic diarrhea. Probiotics may stabilize the microflora and promote a healthier environment in the gut. It’s important to keep in mind that if a probiotic is going to help in these cases, it will help within a few days. If the condition persists, it has a different cause that needs to be investigated.
• To help unthrifty horses better utilize nutrients. A probiotic may improve the efficiency of digestion in horses and others who have trouble maintaining weight.
Before you purchase a probiotic product, read the label on your feeds carefully. Many commercial products already contain probiotics, so adding more will be a waste of money. Also check with your veterinarian before adding a probiotic supplement. Research in this area is moving fast and you’ll want to make sure your decisions are based on the latest thinking.
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