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Pro's and Con's of probiotics

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Some people believe that certain species of birds do not have any beneficial bacteria in their gut (Sterile Bowel Theory).  Here is our Technical Director's comments on this.

Let me start by saying that the notion that Australian finches (or any other birds for that matter) don’t have beneficial bacteria in the gut seems completely bizarre. There are a whole bunch of digestive and nutritional jobs that gut bacteria do that animals and birds can’t. For example we can’t make a whole host of vitamins so we rely on the bacteria to do that for us.

Given that all multicellular animals have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with gut bacteria it would seem incomprehensible that a niche group of birds like Australian finches should have evolved all those hundreds of biochemical processes to do the jobs themselves and a way of killing all the bacteria they eat naturally in their foods. And what would be the evolutionary advantage to do that? And if there was an evolutionary benefit surely other creatures would have done it too. It is often argued that we humans have more bacterial cells in our bodies than we have cells of our own. The same is almost certainly true of birds.

If finches absorb their food more quickly than other species (I have no idea if that is true or not) then their need for digestive support would be greater not less than animals with a slower food transit time.

But if we discard the Sterile Bowel Theory that doesn’t mean that supplementing with probiotics is automatically a good thing to do.

** BioPlus - Powder Pro and Prebiotic, which has a long shelf life.**

The gut of the newly hatched baby bird will be sterile but the beneficial bacteria we are talking about are everywhere. You will find them in soil, on plants and in food. The parents crop will be crawling with them so from their very first feed their gut flora will be being established. But they will be getting germs from the same sources as they get beneficial bacteria. So the trick is to help the good guys and hinder the bad guys. We can do that in two ways:

  • 1.Feed the good guys. Foods specifically designed for beneficial bacteria include high fibre sources and some herbal materials. The diets of seed eating birds are dominated by starch and are fairly low in fibre (some of the oily seeds fed to parrots are better). Hi starch, low fibre diets are bad for all of us. In humans they encourage obesity, diabetes, ulcers etc. In seed-eating birds they are probably less serious as that is what they have evolved to eat. But wild birds will have access to a bigger range of sometimes higher fibre feeds than our caged birds.

    So it can make sense to support the natural gut flora with nutrients specially selected for that purpose and these are called prebiotics. We incorporate a range of these into our Feast eggfoods and our broad spectrum supplements like Daily Essentials3 and the EasyBird range.
  • 2.The second approach is to actually provide the beneficial bacteria themselves. These are the probiotics. When we first entered the market over 20 years ago probiotics were all the rage – they still are in France. But they do need to be used with a little thought. The gut should naturally have thousands of different strains of bugs in them. That is healthy. But our EU regulators seem to think that probiotic products should only contain a single strain. That risks overwhelming the gut with a single bug. So it is important to select probiotics that will help create a good environment for all beneficial bacteria rather than reproduce like mad and dominate. Hopefully we have done that with both BioPlus and Potent Brew.

As a general rule we recommend that non breeding birds probably don’t need a probiotic at all – so long as the diet contains prebiotics. If people want to use a probiotic as a general health insurance policy we suggest BioPlus perhaps once a week. And we pick BioPlus simply because it has a long shelf life compared to Potent Brew.

**Potent Brew - Liquid probiotic, short shelf life of 4 to 6 months.**

But there is a time when experience tells us that Potent Brew excels and that is for breeding birds. For the adults it seems to give them a kick start into breeding condition. But more importantly it gets the babies off to a really good start by ensuring their early gut flora has some really useful bacteria from the off. Customer feedback confirms that babies on Potent Brew are really healthy and grow faster than those that are not. And actually that is confirmed by a study on partridges at Sparsholt Agricultural College about 20 years ago. The drawback of Potent Brew is the 4-6 month shelf life and the need to keep it in the fridge.

The only other time a probiotic will help is when a bird gets a digestive infection. For those Potent Brew is always going to be best as it will get to work in the crop as well as further down the digestive tract. Powder probiotics can’t really do that even if added to the drinking water.


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