Not a day goes by that we aren't bombarded by advertisements for a new yogurt, a new pill or a new supplement with probiotics in it, informing us that probiotics can improve colon health, make us more regular, enhance our immune system and help prevent infections. Can a supplement containing probiotics really do all these things? And can they do the same for our avian friends?

First, we need to know what exactly probiotics are. Probiotics are strains of live microorganisms that are naturally found inside of animals and birds that 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 humans and animals is filled with billions and billions of bacteria that are necessary for normal digestion. It may be surprising to some of my readers to learn that not all bacteria are bad or dangerous. Those organisms colonizing the intestinal tract are not only supposed to be there, but are vital to normal digestion.

Bad bacteria are also called pathogenic, or disease-causing bacteria. Some bacteria are called opportunistic, meaning that they may or may not cause disease, depending on certain conditions.

Problems may occur when the balance of good bacteria is disrupted by other microorganisms, including some yeast or protozoal organisms, bad bacteria causing infection or from viral infections. There can be pathogenic bacteria or opportunistic bacteria in the intestinal tract that are not in great enough numbers to cause disease. However, if the "good" bacteria are destroyed or reduced in number (from antibiotic therapy, for example, which may kill off "good" bacteria as well as pathogens and opportunistic bacteria during treatment) then problems may develop.

The theory is that "good" bacteria are very helpful in competing with "bad" bacteria, perhaps preventing them from gaining a foothold and then setting up housekeeping in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is also thought that probiotics may have some positive impact on stimulating the immune system.

Probiotics may also prevent secondary bacterial and/or yeast infections after antibiotic therapy by preventing the overgrowth of potentially pathogenic bacteria. Antibiotics given to a patient for treating an infection anywhere in the body can result in the overgrowth of potential pathogens in the gastrointestinal tract. In some cases, antibiotic therapy will also result in the overgrowth of fungi, including yeast. This is a particularly dangerous problem in baby birds that are receiving antibiotics, as neonates may end up with candidiasis anywhere in the GI tract, most commonly causing ingluvitis (crop infection) from Candida albicans, a common yeast.

Antibiotics are either bacteriostatic, meaning that they will prevent the growth and reproduction of bacteria, or bacteriocidal, meaning that they actually kill bacteria by one of many methods. Unfortunately, antibiotics can't discriminate between good bacteria or dangerous bacteria, and may actually destroy some of the body's good or benign organisms in the process of treating a bacterial infection in the body.

Most antibiotics are developed to target a specific group of organisms, allowing bacteria other than the targeted ones to escape unharmed. However, it is not uncommon for some good bacteria to get caught in the crossfire, especially when broad-spectrum antibiotics are used. This can result in an imbalance between good and bad bacteria. Without good bacteria (the probiotics), often a secondary infection can develop, usually in the GI tract, but these can occur anywhere that good bacteria are found. Dysbiosis is the term used to explain the imbalance of good and bad bacteria, usually as the result of antibiotic therapy or perhaps from consuming an incorrect diet, as examples.

Where do probiotics come from? 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 and birds.

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 birds or other mammals. 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.

Microbiologists whom I have spoken with felt that probiotics will help compete against pathogens or opportunists in the GI tract, but aren't likely to colonize long-term. I think this is why for humans, it is recommended that probiotics be taken daily and regularly, and not just according to a periodic dosing regime.

When should birds receive probiotics? I feel that they 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 kind of stress will also benefit from probiotic administration, whether the stress is from moving, acquiring a new pet or family member, from environmental changes, or when 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, administered as a powder, over their soft food, daily. The supplement that I use and recommend is Young Again's Immune and Digestive Support. As a matter of fact, our monkeys in our sanctuary also receive this same supplement.

It would make sense that breeder birds, especially those feeding their offspring, will benefit from probiotic administration.

Young Again Immune and Digestive Support is provided as a powdered supplement. This should be placed on moist vegetables or fruits, or it may be mixed into the daily bowl of foods provided. Some commercial pelleted diets have probiotics already in them. Some manufacturers apply probiotics to their pellets after the extrusion process (since heat can kill these organisms). Some companies also provide probiotics in their hand-feeding formulas for baby birds.

Is it possible to provide too many probiotics? I don't think there is a scientific answer to this question since no one knows the exact counts of good bacteria that are optimal or even suspected to be necessary in any animal. But if you are offering a pelleted food that already contains probiotics it may not be necessary to provide more in a supplement. The same holds true for hand-feeding formulas that already contain some probiotic organisms. I don't think it is dangerous to offer probiotics in more than one form to a bird, but it probably isn't necessary. Immune and Digestive Support provides more than just good bacteria and also contains micronutrients, nucleotides, prebiotics, enzymes and DMG.

How will you know if the probiotics that you are offering are helping your birds? You may not know for sure, but your avian vet may be able to help you assess if they are providing potential benefits. If your birds are showing fewer abnormal bacteria or yeast on Gram's stains, if bacterial cultures improve, if white blood cell counts normalize: all of these things may show that your birds are in better health.

Immune and Digestive Support can help your birds become healthier pets. The only probiotic supplement that I recommend is Immune and Digestive Support, Bioceutical Supplement by the Young Again company. In addition to probiotics and prebiotics, this amazing supplement also contains a unique blend of five key nucleotides (cell building-blocks), two enzymes and a wonderful antioxidant, DMG.

I use this supplement in all exotic species of pets that I work with, including rabbits, ferrets, rodents, marmosets, tamarins and reptiles.

You can find this supplement by clicking on the Young Again link on the home page of our website.

Copyright 2013 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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