Pet food and human food research on the microbiome – the collection of gut bacteria unique to each person, dog, cat or other animal – has been exploding in recent years. Actually, each living organism and environment has an overall microbiome; it’s not just confined to the gastrointestinal (GI) system. But much of the research happening now focuses on the gut microbiome and its surprising link to a host of conditions and diseases, not to mention its impact on nutrition.
Researchers are now looking at the gut as a separate organ that contributes as much to the body and its health as does the heart, brain and other key organs, said Karl Dawson, Ph.D., vice president and chief scientific officer for Alltech. “Anything you do to influence this has huge implications for the health of the animal or person,” he commented during One 2018: the Alltech Ideas Conference.
Recent microbiome research in human and pet nutrition
For instance, researchers with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the BioTechnology Institute at the University of Minnesota recently published a study showing that human foods with the same or similar nutrient levels can have very different effects on people’s microbiomes, reported NutritionInsight.com. As an example, despite similar nutritional profiles, leafy greens can affect the gut much differently than do carrots.
“Nutrition labels are human-centric,” said senior author Dan Knights. “They don’t provide much information about how the microbiome is going to change from day to day or person to person.”
In pets, researchers are studying areas such as the differences in the microbiomes of dogs versus cats and the effect of dietary fiber and high-meat diets on the microbial profile of fecal bacteria in dogs and cats. These have implications for the animals’ nutrition and overall health: In one study, dogs with irritable bowel syndrome (IBD) were shown to have higher concentrations of certain protozoa, Dawson said.
Other research conducted at Massey University in New Zealand has demonstrated links between gut microbiota and obesity, acute GI infections, diarrhea, allergic and infectious diseases and, again, IBD. With conditions like obesity and IBD, there is also a tie to the gut-brain axis in the dog’s or cat’s body, said Emma Bermingham, Ph.D., senior scientist with AgResearch and part of the Massey research team.
Taking pet microbiome research to a new level
A new and fast-growing trend in pet food is the rise of customized, subscription-based diets. One company with that business model, NomNomNow, is using its comprehensive, constant contact with its customers to fuel research on the microbiome. Two company’s executives, Ryan Honaker, Ph.D., director of microbiology, and Justin Shmalberg, DVM, DACVN, chief nutrition officer, described their research, some current findings and future studies during Petfood Forum Europe, June 13 in Cologne, Germany. (Shmalberg delivered his share of the presentation via video.)
As part of its ongoing communication with its customer base, NomNomNow established a group to do microbiome profiling of the owners’ pets. These owners supply even more detailed information about their pets’ health, diet and eating habits than other NomNomNow customers do – answering 115 questions in five categories – plus they receive a kit to collect non-invasive samples from their pets. Then the owners receive a pet health assessment report and periodic microbiome reports generated by the company.
The data collected and resulting analysis is providing numerous insights to the company and its customers, Honaker said, and could also create opportunity for the entire pet food industry. For example, this rich source of data has inspired him and his team to move toward scientific publication of some of the results. “As the science advances, the results mean more and become increasingly actionable,” he said.
NomNomNow also uses the data and analysis for product development and cross-selling products, funneling the participants into their pet food subscription program and engaging with customers in a novel way. For its participating customers, they get a comparison of their pets’ GI health and monitoring of their microbiomes over time, an understanding of the relationship of the microbiome to underlying conditions and customized products, and a sense of contributing to citizen science.
Insights and applications for pet food industry
To date, NomNomNow’s efforts have uncovered data and insights in areas such as:
- States with the highest rates of pet obesity, and related to that, one of the company’s key features is portion control of all customers’ pets’ food;
- A dog’s size and the relationship between periodontal disease and arthritis, which is supported by literature, Honaker said);
- Interesting differences between dogs and cats in terms of intestinal disease and other conditions. For example, dogs have many more intestinal “bugs” than cats do;
- Dogs with allergies, which are lacking a lot of gut bacteria that “healthy” dogs have.
The lessons NomNomNow has learned to date can definitely apply to other pet food companies. A direct-to-consumer sales platform is invaluable in knowing your customers and their pets, and offers a unique, inexpensive way to collect data that can benefit all, Honaker said.
This is important because new methods for assessing nutritional performance are essential, and aside from very large pet food companies, most can’t afford to do their own research. Until now, perhaps. “Big data and meaningful science doesn’t have to mean big budgets,” Honaker said.