Influencing the Animal Microbiota


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A greater understanding of the complex network of microorganisms within pets and livestock is leading to more sophisticated products that can influence animal health and well-being.

“Microbiota” is the single term for a complex and dynamic population of microorganisms. In pets and livestock, this is a promising frontier for influencing animal health, productivity and well-being. With more research and resources being devoted to microbiota, the animal health industry is poised to see more innovations coming to market.

Understanding the microbiota

The microbiota is heavily influenced by diet, medications and disease. Yet, pet and livestock owners can exert their own influence by feeding probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics. Other tactics, like fecal transplants, are more intensive approaches to shifting microbial populations while improving animal health.

The industry’s understanding of the microbiota is rapidly improving thanks to techniques like next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies, which allowed researchers to see the overall composition and function of the animal gut microbiota.

“The research is changing and so dynamic that it’s a remarkable subject to keep up with,” said Martha G. Cline, DVM, DACVIM (nutrition), Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® and veterinary communications manager with Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets. “Genome sequences of lactobacillus, for example, show that a single strain can affect different organ systems. And different strains might have different species effects or different effects for different disease processes.”

Role of microbiota

As a practicing veterinarian, Cline already relies on prebiotics and probiotics in her clinical work to help manage gastrointestinal disease or imbalances caused by antimicrobials. In the future, veterinarians may commonly rely on microbial products to address other conditions that can often be linked to gastrointestinal health like anxiety or immune problems, too.

“Some of what we know is very clinically applicable, and veterinarians will need to help their clients find the right product for their pet’s condition,” Cline said.

A diverse and well-balanced gut microbiome is essential for digestion and nutrient absorption in pets, explained Carlton Osborne, chief executive officer and co-founder of AnimalBiome.

“The microbiome is a bit of a paradigm buster for nutrition,” he said. “For a long time, we’ve had the idea the host – you, me or pets – actually digest the food. Most of what we eat is digested by bacteria that we need to be healthy. This is important when we think of how over half of cats and cats are overweight. As you feed them more or less, their microbiome changes. And, we already know that between 70 to 80 percent of the immune system is actually in the digestive tract.”

Positive influences

Probiotic products are a growing consumer market for pet owners and livestock producers. However, quality remains a concern.

“There was a study several years ago that sampled around 25 supplements, and results showed very few probiotic products actually had in them what they said on the labels,” Cline cautioned. “The problem with supplements in general is that not all products are the same from a quality standpoint. What’s really important is some independent verification and evidence of efficacy.”

Cline advises pet owners to do their research and look for supplements from reputable companies that produce quality products, ideally with supporting documentation to support the product’s safety and efficacy. With probiotics, often there is the perception that more colony-forming units are better. However, Cline said veterinarians and pet owners may rethink that approach in the future.

“More bacteria does not always equate to more efficacy,” she said. “It is really going to depend on the individual science on that strain(s).”

Sequencing the microbiota of individual animals is becoming more affordable. This technology could help identify the specific strains that may deliver the desired effect. AnimalBiome is currently working with partners to learn more about specific species, like poultry, and influence the microbiota for the purpose of reducing mortality with new products or management techniques.

“In the last 10 years, sequencing technology has become affordable enough that we can use it for an individual pet or human,” Osborne said. “There’s lots to learn, but we know enough that we believe the microbiota is important to improving animal health or increasing production.”


Key points

  • “Microbiome” refers to the collection of genomes from all the microorganisms in the environment. Microbiota refers to microorganisms that are found within a specific environment.
  • Common tactics to influence the microbiota include feeding probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics to pets and livestock.
  • Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth or activity of beneficial bacteria within the gut.
  • Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide health benefits.
  • Postbiotics are compounds produced by microbes when they digest probiotics.


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