Horse owners provide their horses all the right things – clean, fresh water, excellent quality forage like alfalfa or timothy hay, and supplements that provide balanced levels of vitamins and minerals. In spite of this exceptional care, sometimes their horses still don’t seem quite right and may actually be suffering from digestive problems. The equine digestive system is particularly sensitive and overall health is directly tied to a properly functioning gastrointestinal tract. Fortunately, many types of nutritional supplements that support digestive function are available to horse owners.
Prebiotics and probiotics are nutritional supplements that are commonly used in human, horse, dog, cow, and chicken diets to support and protect gastrointestinal health. Despite the similarity in their names, prebiotics and probiotics are two completely different types of supplements with distinct mechanisms of action.
Probiotics are “live” bacteria that may help establish intestinal balance in a horse when they are fed in adequate amounts. Probiotics are “good” microorganisms and some of the most common microbes fed to horses include yeast (Sacchromyces cerevisiae) and some strains of bacteria (Bifidobacterium bifidum and Lactobacillus acidophilis). Probiotics are important because they aid in the digestion and fermentation of grass and hay in the equine digestive system. They also produce B vitamins, which are essential nutrients for horses. Probiotics may also help establish good gastrointestinal health in horses by augmenting the existing microbial population, which subsequently prevents the “bad” bacteria from overpopulating and causing diarrhea and illness.
Prebiotics are non-digestible feed ingredients that are commonly fed to horses. While they provide no nutritional benefit to a horse, prebiotics are a food source for the “good” microbes, which use the prebiotics to grow and reproduce. Some common prebiotics included in equine supplements include fructooligosaccharides, xylooligosaccharides, polydextrose, mannoligosaccharides, galactooligosaccharides, pectin, and psyllium.
When prebiotics and probiotics are fed together, the supplements are often referred to as synbiotics because they work synergistically. Horse owners can feed synbiotics when a horse has experienced stress, such as transportation. Synbiotics are also beneficial when a horse undergoes an abrupt dietary change. Antibiotic treatment can also alter the normal gastrointestinal microbial population; therefore, feeding prebiotics and probiotics can help repopulate the microorganisms in the digestive system. In addition, old horses or “hardkeepers” may benefit from prebiotic and probiotic supplementation.
Unfortunately, there is little scientific evidence that conclusively shows that prebiotics and probiotics are safe and effective; however, they are generally considered safe to feed. Nonetheless, there are some situations that when probiotics may not be suitable for use. Therefore, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that horse owners seek guidance from their veterinarians before administering prebiotics and probiotics.
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Oke, S. 2012. Prebiotics and Probiotics. http://www.thehorse.com/free-reports/30007/prebiotics-and-probiotics