Most of us know probiotics are beneficial in providing good bacteria…in humans. Yogurt or probiotic capsules are often used to promote healthy gut function. However, are you aware probiotics (and prebiotics) are thought to be just as beneficial in horses?
What exactly is the difference in pre and probiotics? Prebiotics are ingredients that promote the growth and health of microorganisms which are already present in your horse’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Think of prebiotics as a source of food for your horse’s pre-existing gut microbes. Prebiotics do not introduce new bacteria to the digestive tract.
Probiotics, however, do introduce good bacteria, such as lactobacillus and enterococcus, to your horse’s GI tract. Shannel Wylie, M.S., PAS, Nutrition Advisor at Kentucky Equine Research (KER), defines probiotics as “live microorganisms (bacteria) that have been proven to show an effect on health.” These bacteria promote a balance in the digestive tract and are thought to play a role in GI transit, metabolization, immunity, and even generating energy.
Although there are ongoing equine studies on pre and probiotics, Dr. Mark Akin, DVM, goes with the theory they “won’t hurt, might help.” In fact, if your horse has any “medical issue affecting the GI tract, like Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS), chronic or acute diarrhea, chronic colic, or decreased motility” pre and probiotics could be especially beneficial, according to Dr. Akin. Observing your horse’s manure is an easy way to determine if taking pre and probiotics may benefit your horse. Any manure that is soft, liquid, or occurs too frequently is consistent with a problem in the horse’s microbiome.
The most important aspects of digestion occur in the hindgut of horses, particularly the cecum and the colon. It is here that fiber, the majority of equine nutrition, is digested. “In order to ensure effectiveness, the pre and probiotics need to be encapsulated or they will not survive the acidic environment of the stomach” and reach their final destination, the hindgut, according to Shannel.
Many feeds on the market already contain pre and probiotics. If your particular feed does not include them, they can easily be bought separately at your local feed store and top-dressed onto your horse’s feed. Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., Nutrition Advisor at KER, recommends purchasing pre and probiotics “from reputable companies that provide complete ingredient information, including colony-forming unit (CFU), and utilize strains that have research to support their safety for the intended class of horse.” She also notes it is important to be aware that studies have shown negative effects, such as diarrhea, when used in foals.
Times of stress, such as travel, competing, or even a dietary change can disrupt the balance of your horse’s GI tract. It is best to begin feeding pre and probiotics to your horse 2-3 days ahead of the planned event and continue administration until the competition, show, or haul is over. This will give the probiotics ample time to colonize.
As always, consult with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist before making any dietary changes to your horse’s feeding routine.