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Your cat’s immune system works to combat dirt and germs, which can easily end up on its fur, and quickly soon after, licked right off. Now, cat food contains ingredients called prebiotics that can strengthen that defense.
Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and activity of digestive system bacteria that are beneficial to your cat’s health. For the first time, they are now available in both wet and dry high-quality cat foods. Ohio-based veterinarian Dr. Amy Dicke explains more about what prebiotics are and how they work.
Prebiotics in Cat Food
While certain cat foods now have the word “prebiotics” on the front label, check the product’s ingredient list. Look for the word “fructooligosaccharides,” or FOS for short. If you find it, the food has one of the best prebiotics now available. Although the name seems very scientific, it’s actually a fiber, according to Dicke. “FOS is found naturally in certain fruits, vegetables and grains,” she explained. “However, the concentration is typically very low and does not provide the desired health benefits.”
How Prebiotics Work
Up to 70 percent of your cat’s immune system is found in its digestive tract. To infect your cat’s body, germs and other invaders must break through a mucous membrane barrier, consisting of cells lining the gut. Like a wall, this barrier can prevent unwanted organisms from moving into the body.
When FOS is broken down, it produces short-chain fatty acids, which serve as food or energy for the cells of the mucosal barrier, promoting their health and integrity. An increasing population of beneficial bacteria helps to competitively exclude, or crowd out, bad bacteria through physical competition for space and nutrients, as well as producing substances detrimental to the undesirable bacteria.
Health Benefits of Prebiotics
Beyond supporting the immune system, prebiotics may also lead to other health benefits in your cat. Research on humans, who use prebiotics in a similar way, found that prebiotics appear to reduce inflammation. A study on this was recently published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology. “Just as some foods can lead to poor health, it’s no surprise that others can have positive effects,” said the journal’s editor, Dr. Luis Montaner.
A study in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood reported that prebiotics, very similar to those found in breast milk, ward off a dangerous form of dermatitis. Kittens receive comparable prebiotics from their mothers when they nurse, so it’s possible that prebiotics in cat food can help to prevent feline skin and coat problems in adult cats.
How to Begin Feeding a Cat Food With Prebiotics
If your cat is not currently eating a food containing prebiotics, and you’d like to make the switch, Dicke advised that there should be a transition period, where the new food is mixed with your pet’s current diet. Here’s a sample feeding schedule over a week’s time:
Day 1: Feed approximately ¼ of new food mixed with ¾ of the current food.
Days 2 and 3: Mix the food ½ and ½ .
Days 4 to 6: Give your cat ¾ of the new prebiotics-containing food and one-quarter of its former chow.
Day 7: Begin feeding your cat 100 percent of the new product.
Are Prebiotics Suitable for All Cats?
According to Dicke, prebiotics can be beneficial to nearly all cats at all life stages. “There are times during your pet’s life when dietary FOS may have greater value,” she added. Cats that may especially need the immunity boost of prebiotics include:
Consult with your veterinarian to see what he or she recommends. If your cat has a serious weight or medical condition, it might require a special veterinarian formula food to address its particular needs. But for most cats, a wet or dry food containing prebiotics is a very wise choice for mealtime.
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.