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A stroll down the pet food aisle of your favorite store these days might reveal products labeled with the word “prebiotics.” You may not be familiar with these prebiotics, but once you learn of their potential for promoting good health, they could soon be on your shopping list radar.
Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian Amy Dicke, DVM, who has been a member of teams consisting of nutritionists, researchers and fellow veterinarians, explains what prebiotics are and how they can benefit your cat.
Prebiotics, Probiotics and Antioxidants
As medical- and food-science findings continue to emerge and evolve, so does our understanding of how food can affect us and our pets, particularly in terms of what goes on in our bodies at the microscopic level. For many years, studies have shown that fiber is essential to diets for mammals. Now, this research has become more specialized, putting the spotlight on different fiber types, such as prebiotics.
Prebiotics are specialized fibers that, when consumed, stimulate the growth and function of certain healthy, or “good,” bacteria in the gut. They can also work together with probiotics, which are actual live bacteria that are ingested. Prebiotics essentially feed probiotics, enhancing their positive health benefits. By acting as a food source for good bacteria, prebiotics selectively promote the growth of good bacteria, thereby increasing their population in the intestine.
Antioxidants, on the other hand, are substances or nutrients in food that help minimize damage to healthy cells by acting as “free-radical scavengers.” Free radicals are like microscopic garbage in the body. Antioxidants help to prevent the formation of the potentially dangerous garbage. Studies indicate this waste may be a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer and more.
Prebiotics, probiotics and antioxidants are like a near-invisible version of the three musketeers, fighting for good health: They all have influence on the immune system and can support better defenses.
Ingredients That Contain Prebiotics
Like vitamins and minerals, prebiotics are a natural part of certain common ingredients. They can be found in a variety of foods, like bananas, garlic, honey, rye and wheat. You wouldn’t necessarily want to feed your cat all these foods outright, since some contain other compounds that are toxic to felines. Researchers have therefore figured a way to isolate prebiotics so cats can more easily benefit from their dietary inclusion.
One common prebiotic is called Fructooligosaccharides, or FOS for short. It’s been a food supplement in Japan for decades and is now becoming increasingly popular in Western cultures. Studies suggest it’s good for cats, so you might see it on certain premium cat food labels.
Prebiotics and You
Information about prebiotics has mostly emerged from studies on human diseases. Doctors like Robert Martindale, a gastrointestinal surgeon and nutritionist at the Medical College of Georgia, noticed that salmonella, E. coli and other harmful bacterial invaders would often become more aggressive and infectious in some patients.
These people, as it turned out, had often experienced disruptions to their healthy colon bacteria. Taking necessary antibiotics for long periods of time, for example, can sometimes cause patients to become more susceptible to later disease invasion. “If you start looking at the data on what bacteria do for us, there truly is a mutualistic relationship between us and the bacteria that live in our colon,” says Dr. Martindale. Because prebiotics promote healthy gut flora, they’re beginning to become more prevalent in food.
Prebiotics and Your Cat
Antibiotics aren’t the only things that can throw off your cat’s digestive system. Certain conditions, including stress, diet changes, age and disease, can cause the digestive balance to be disrupted. These can occur at various stages of life and on any given day. Regularly feeding your cat a food containing prebiotics can help maintain a balanced digestive system.
No one can avoid potentially harmful bacteria -- they are always around. “In the digestive tract of the healthy dog and cat there will always be beneficial bacteria, as well as bacteria that can potentially cause disease,” Dr. Dicke explains. “The key to good intestinal health is to keep them in balance.”
Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.