Margaret A. Wissman, DVM
Probiotics are strains of live microorganisms that are naturally found inside of animals, including birds. They are considered beneficial to their host when provided in adequate amounts. Almost all probiotics are bacterial; however, sometimes certain yeast isolates are also used as probiotics.
The intestinal tract of animals, including people, is filled with billions and billions of bacteria that are necessary for normal digestion. It may be surprising to learn that not all bacteria are bad or dangerous. Those organisms colonizing the intestinal tract are not only supposed to be there, but they are vital to normal digestion.
Initially, when parent birds are feeding their chicks, the bacteria found in their digestive tracts are regurgitated to their babies, allowing the good organisms to set up housekeeping in the hatchlings. Probiotic organisms are naturally found in healthy animals.
Interestingly, it has been shown that probiotics are quite species-specific. This means that human probiotics are not likely to be of much help to other mammals or to birds. Other research has shown that most probiotics that are grown commercially are not likely to be able to effectively colonize in an animal, even if they came from that species originally.
How is that possible? Bacteria taken from a specific species, when grown in large, stainless-steel vats, which is the most common method of bacterial cultivation, are somehow genetically changed enough to no longer grow when reintroduced back into the animals they came from.
When researching this article, I didn’t find any scientific studies that show if the probiotic bacteria actually grow, divide and colonize inside the host, and if they do, what percentages thrive. Most of the information is about the numbers and types of microorganisms provided in each probiotic product, not what happens to them long-term inside the body.
Microbiologists whom I have spoken with believe that probiotics help compete against pathogens or opportunists in the GI tract, but aren’t likely to colonize long-term. I think this is why for people it is recommended that probiotics be taken daily and regularly, and not just according to a periodic dosing regimen.
Since probiotics most likely compete with bad bacteria, I do believe that their use can be beneficial. But, knowing what we know, I feel that it is always best to provide probiotics derived from the same type of animal that they are going back into. So, it makes sense that the species of probiotics found in yogurt and other supplements developed for people are not going to work the best for birds.
While the genus names of the probiotic bacteria, such as Lactobacillus, Bacillus and Enterococcus, are found among many different probiotic supplements, the different species are usually derived from different species of animals. Knowing where the probiotics came from is very helpful, as there truly is no one-size-fits-all type of probiotic supplement.
When researching which probiotic supplement to offer your bird, look for those that originally came from birds, preferably psittacines, although that information may be hard to come by. Ask your avian veterinarian for recommendations as to which supplements you should use for your own bird(s) based on its normal diet and current health.
I believe that a bird should definitely receive probiotics during and after antibiotic therapy, to prevent the risk of dysbiosis or overgrowth of potentially pathogenic bacteria and yeast. Birds under any type of stress also benefit from probiotic administration, whether the stress is from your moving, acquiring a new pet or family member, from environmental changes, or when the bird is breeding or rearing young, for example.
My own birds, both pet and breeders, all receive probiotics on a daily basis, year-round. Studies have shown that birds receiving probiotics may be able to fight challenges from bacterial organisms better than those that do not get them. My Gouldian finches, African grey, budgie and our outdoor aviary birds all receive probiotics daily, administered as a powder over their soft food.
It would make sense that breeder birds, especially those feeding their offspring, might benefit from probiotic administration. While I believe that the live probiotics are not likely to colonize inside animals, if they can provide benefits to the immune system and digestive health, then I don’t see any harm in offering those supplements daily.
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