Feeding Prebiotics and Probiotics

Prebiotics, probiotics and synbiotics (a combination of the two) are a type of nutritional supplements given to horses to protect and support the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. A healthy GI tract is thought to reduce gas, colic, improve digestion and absorption of nutrients, minimize laminitis, protect the body against infection as well as benefiting the immune system.

Despite the similar sounding names, prebiotics and probiotics are two completely different types of supplements with two different mechanisms of actions

  • Probiotics are live ''good'' microorganisms (such as fungi, bacteria or yeast). These are important to the horse because they help break down and ferment grass and hay. This fermentation results in the production of volatile fatty acids which provide a significant source of energy to the horse. 
  • These microbes also produce B vitamins and other nutrients which contribute to the overal health of the horse.  
  • These ''good'' microbes keep the ''bad'' microbes (eg. salmonella) from over populating the intestines and causing illness. 

  • In the simplest terms, prebiotics are a food source that stimulate the growth or activity the bacteria and probiotics in the horses GI tract - in other words these products ''feed'' the good bugs.
  • The majority of prebiotics are carbohydrates which are long chains of sugar molecules.
  • The horse cannot digest these food sources but instead they are broken down by the ''good'' micro-organisms.

How do they benefit horses?  
Like many nutritional supplements, far more research has been conducted in human medicine than veterinary medicine. In humans, probiotics and prebiotics have been used for the treatment and management of infectious diarrhoea, IBS, inflammatory bowel disease, gastric ulcers, dental disease and skin infections.

The populations of microbes in the horses large intestine can be altered to due to, but not limited to, the use of antibiotics, changes in feed, transport and stress. Therefore, many horse owners now treat their horses with either probiotics or prebiotics (or a combination of both) before a stressful event or antibiotic use. They have also been proven to be beneficial to older horses, hard/poor doers, or high end performance horses.

These products are cheap, widely available and have a positive effect on the body. However, it is important to remember that scientific research into the effects of using these products remains somewhat scarce - but that's not to say there are none!

In 2005 a study was performed which supports the use of orally ingested probiotics. Horses with acute diarrhoea were fed a probiotic and experienced a huge reduction in the severity and duration of their illness, compared to untreated horses and those receiving a placebo. Another study, in 2008, showed that a prebiotic was effective in reducing microbe disruption in the hind-gut during stressful conditions.

A Little Caution
Although widely considered safe, one must air on the side of caution when using pro and prebiotics.

As pro and prebiotics are not classified as drugs they do not have to be manufactured like drugs (using quality controlled or quality assured practices), thus there are alot of substandard products available.

In one study when probiotics were given to newborn foals it caused severe diarrhoea. Whereas in another human study the use of probiotics was associated with a higher death rate in patients with acute appendicitis.

NAF Biotics Powder - one of the few high quality products available containing both pre and probiotics

Last Words
The ''good'' bacteria in the horses gut are beneficial to the horses digestive tract as well as it's over all well-being. Stress or illness can cause a disruption to the population of these microbes which can lead to the horse becoming 'run down' and thus cause secondary issues such as laminitis or colic.

Replacing or enhancing the ''good'' bacteria as well as giving them a suitable food source so as to encourage them to flourish can help a stressed or ill horse.

But best to remember that probiotics and prebiotics are being tested and explored more in relation to horse digestive systems! So watch this space :)

So what do you think? Do you feed pro or prebiotics - have you noticed a change in your horse?

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