Prebiotics for Cats: What Are They and Why Are They So Important for Cat Digestive Health?

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Nature is a wonderful and fascinating thing. Like all mammals and humans, cats have billions of organisms like bacteria in the gut, collectively known as the gut microbiome, that play a part in a whole host of natural processes. Cats have what is known as a symbiotic relationship with these organisms, which means they live together and benefit each other in many ways. 

There are lots of different microbiomes in your cat’s body, such as on the skin and in the mouth, but the gut microbiome is a bit of a star. In fact, lots of scientists are excited about the gut microbiome because research is discovering more of the amazing and important roles that it plays in health every day. 

This is where prebiotics come in… 

What are prebiotics and what do they do?

Prebiotics are types of fibre that nourish the organisms of the microbiome (even microorganisms have to eat, right?).

Fibre in foods can be largely divided into soluble (dissolves in water) and insoluble (does not dissolve). Prebiotics are soluble fibres found in ingredients such as beet pulp, flaxseed and pumpkin. They feed the “good bacteria” of the microbiome, so they’re absolutely essential for maintaining a healthy balance, just as nature intended.

The good bacteria break down food ingredients, such as fibre, that your cat’s body can’t. This breakdown produces short-chain fatty acids, among other nutrients, that nourish the gut cells and keep the gut healthy. This, in turn, helps to keep out harmful bacteria by strengthening the gut barrier. The good guys also help produce important vitamins and boost the immune system, keeping “unhealthy” bacteria in check.

You may have heard the term “probiotics” as well, and it’s important to know the difference between the two.

Prebiotics vs probiotics

Probiotics are the good bacteria themselves. A probiotic supplement is aimed at bolstering the good bacteria population by simply adding more of them. While this is certainly positive, promoting gut health and protecting against certain diseases, probiotics have certain downsides compared to prebiotics.

The stomach is a savage, acidic environment. Many of the bacteria in probiotic supplements don’t survive this, so they don’t make it to the part of the gut where they’re needed. Moreover, compared to the trillions of bacteria within the gut microbiome, even the millions of bacteria that survive the stomach environment are only a very small fraction of the total. The effects of probiotics are therefore often short-lived.

Prebiotics, however, are untouched by the stomach acid and will therefore always get to where they’re needed. And because they’re fibres, prebiotics can have other benefits, too.

The many benefits of prebiotics for your cat

Fibre helps to slow down the movement of food through the bowels, so it can help with cases of diarrhoea. On the other hand, it bulks up the stools, so it can also help in cases of constipation too. Clever, eh? 

Fibre also helps your cat feel fuller for longer, so it can help keep them slim and fit, or help them tackle any weight issues they may have. 

The gut microbiome is also really important for your cat’s immune system. Keeping this environment, and the good bacteria that live there, well-nourished helps to fight infection, keep the immune system strong, and reduce the incidence of auto-immune diseases. 

It’s important to remember that all diets should be complete and balanced, so always check with your veterinarian before simply adding an ingredient or changing to a new food.

Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA