What are probiotics?
Horse Probiotic supplements are feed supplements designed to improve the health and the population of ‘good microbes’ in the hindgut. This in turn boosts a horse’s natural defences and improves recovery after illness. Probiotics can contain bacteria, yeast or fungi.
What are ‘good microbes’ and what do they do?
A horse’s hindgut consists of the cecum and the colon. Within these organs is a large population of good microbes, which includes bacteria, protozoa and fungi. Also known as the ‘intestinal flora’. These microbes perform essential duties that keep a horse healthy. Including; breaking down food, consuming and excreting various substances and producing vitamins, amino acids and nutrients.
Intestinal flora also protects the horse from harmful pathogens. Either by attaching to the gut wall to prevent pathogens using it as a gateway to spread disease within the horse. Or by producing lactic acid to maintain an acidity level that promotes good microbes but is detrimental to harmful microbes. Intestinal flora must be healthy and plentiful for these actions to be effective and efficient.
The environment in the gut is important to microbe survival. The pH balance (acid/alkaline) must be maintained within a narrow range for beneficial microbes to survive. They can deplete or increase depending on the environment they live in. Different microbes also thrive on different diets. For example; some thrive on a diet high in hay whilst others thrive on a diet high in grass. Fluctuations of these microbes are subtle and the body manages them to no detriment.
When changes occur in favour of harmful microbes, the consequences can be damaging to the horse. For example; high grain diets increase levels of starch in a horse’s digestive tract. High levels of starch overload the stomach and small intestine and pass into the hindgut. This causes an increase in certain harmful microbes, an increase in lactic acid production and a depletion of beneficial microbes. This can lead to digestive issues or the onset of disease.
Horse Probiotic supplements vs. Prebiotics
Probiotics are dietary supplements that contain live microorganisms, usually bacteria but sometimes yeast and fungi.
Prebiotics are not live organisms, they are food ingredients that stimulate growth and activity of intestinal flora. Bacteria themselves can have a prebiotic effect if they produce byproducts that in turn nourish other bacteria.
Natural Defences Boosted
Most fluctuations in intestinal flora will correct with time. The idea of probiotics is to introduce good microbes back into the gut and boost recovery. By restoring the balance sooner, we can potentially prevent or reduce consequences of an imbalance.
Symptoms of when to use Horse Probiotic supplements
It is generally accepted that giving probiotics to healthy horses will make no difference to them as their intestinal flora is already well balanced. Research into equine probiotics is ongoing but there is general agreement that they can be useful in the following circumstances:
- Foals and mature horses have less intestinal flora than an average horse. Foals acquire theirs from the environment around them and probiotics may help older horses improve digestion and increase nutrient absorption. The same also applies to horses that struggle to maintain weight.
- Various illnesses can cause damage to intestinal flora. Probiotics are thought to boost the population again and prevent recurrence.
- Dietary changes, diets low in roughage or high in grains upset the acid level in the gut. This can deplete microbe populations and encourage disease.
- The ingredients in antibiotics are damaging to both harmful and helpful microbes. Probiotics can be used post antibiotics treatment to restore preexisting levels.
- Stress or strenuous exercise can produce changes in hormone levels, body temperature, heart rate and other functions. All of which deplete microbes. Starting on a probiotic in the lead up to a stressful event may prevent or reduce problems.
Side effects and Dosage of Horse Probiotic Supplements
Aside from further research being required, it is good to know that they are perfectly safe to give to horses. They have no known side effects when administered with other supplements. Unfortunately there is a wide variety available on the market so it can be difficult knowing which one will work for your horse. There are different ingredients in many probiotics so if your horse does not respond to one it may they may respond better to a different one.
It is important to deliver the dosage as recommended by the producer or you may not see any benefits. It is also important to note that you will not likely see any changes immediately. Always refer to the label for the length of time you should treat your horse.
Benefits of Horse Probiotic Supplements
The benefits of probiotics still needs further research, even though there is general consensus amongst horse owners that they are effective. It is still questionable as to how much of the probiotic actually makes it through the digestive tract to the target site. To combat this there are products available with an enteric coating to prevent stomach acid degrading the medication. However, this also needs further research. Some companies also produce other equine medications with the addition of a probiotic (one example of this is omeprazole based gastric ulcer treatments) with the idea being that the probiotic will speed up recovery. Again, this is something that requires ongoing research before we truly understand the potential benefits.
Underlying causes of imbalance to equine digestive system
As always, it is recommended that you consult with your veterinarian if you have concerns about your horse. Horse Probiotic supplements may help but there may also be other underlying causes that need to be addressed.
Reference:online library wiley (1)