A balanced microbiome is not just essential to human health, it is important to all sorts of animals, including our beloved pets. AnimalBiome is a company, based in San Francisco, that is using microbiome research and products to revolutionize pet care. We wanted to know more about the animal microbiome, so we asked Dr. Holly Ganz of AnimalBiome to answer a few questions for us.
How does the Animal Microbiome differ from the Human microbiome?
All animal species, including humans differ in the composition of their microbiomes. These differences reflect both their phylogenetic (ancestral) history as well as the diet that they have evolved to eat and digest. An interesting example of this is the Giant Panda, which eats bamboo but the bacteria found in its gut microbiome is more similar to other bears that eat meat than to other herbivores. This tells us that Giant Pandas likely had an ancestor who was carnivorous. Dogs and cats have historically eaten high protein diets and tend to have more Fusobacteria and Proteobacteria than humans, who in general tend to consume diets containing more carbohydrates.
Are there significant differences between the roles of the microbiome in humans vs animals?
In general, the gut microbiome plays similar roles in humans and many mammals, including dogs and cats, in that it aids metabolic processes as well as the functioning of the immune and nervous systems. However, across the animals, there are many differences in the microbiomes. For example, ruminants (sheep, cattle, goats, wild bovines, giraffes, deer, gazelles, and antelopes), are unique in that they have a specialized stomach (the rumen) that supports a complex community of microorganisms (including fungi) that ferment plant material, helping them to extract more nutrients from their diet. Animals that eat insects (such as anteaters, pangolins) have special adaptations, their gut microbiomes allow them to digest prey including ants that may have a lot of formic acid. Likewise, animals who eat toxic plants, such as koalas, have evolved specialized microbiomes and digestive physiologies.
How can human microbiomes benefit from animal contact and vice versa?
There are a number of scientific publications that lend support to the Hygiene Hypothesis, which posits that early life exposure to microorganisms found in outside in the environment, such as air, soil, as well as those associated with companion animals and livestock, may aid the development of the immune system. This was based on the observation that children who are raised in more sanitized environments tend to have more allergies (including asthma and hay fever) than those who grow up on farms. There have also been laboratory studies showing that certain bacteria associated with dogs appear to support respiratory health and immunity to influenza viruses.
What are you doing with the animal microbiome?
AnimalBiome helps dogs and cats with digestive issues by looking into their gut microbiomes via a sample of their poop. The company grew out of a research initiative called KittyBiome, a citizen science project started at the University of California, Davis to characterize the microbiome of healthy cats and gain an understanding of how a balanced gut microbiome supports overall health. This research led us to realize that many cats (and dogs) suffer from chronic digestive conditions that are associated with imbalances in the gut microbiome.
What are your goals in focusing on the animal microbiome? What do you hope to accomplish?
We are hoping to prevent and reduce chronic illness in cats and dogs. We do this by characterizing the microbiome using genetic sequencing and we offer oral fecal transplant capsules as a way of restoring missing beneficial bacteria and microbes.
Are animals seeing the same harmful effects of modernization on their microbiomes as humans are? Leading to higher rates of dysbiosis and disease?
Yes, when we look at the microbiome of many dogs and cats, we find that they have imbalanced or dysbiotic bacterial communities and often we find that key beneficial bacteria are missing. This is likely a product of modern diets and medicine, particularly antimicrobials and NSAIDs. And just like people, many dogs and cats spend most of their lives inside and have less exposure to microorganisms in soil and fresh air, as well as other animals than they did historically.
How can pet owners keep their pets microbiomes healthy?
Feed a healthy, balanced diet that is low in carbohydrates and provide enough variety, so they don’t develop sensitivities to certain proteins. As you can imagine, feeding the same food with a single protein source for ten years in a row can be problematic for the immune system. Minimize the use of antibiotics and other medications, when possible. Provide them with daily outlets for exercise in fresh air and access to clean, fresh water.
Is there a future in treating animals with things like FMT just as there seems to be with humans?
Yes we think so! In fact, we developed a Gut Restoration Supplement (which is a fecal transplant in a capsule), which is given orally to help restore missing beneficial bacteria and balance the bacterial community. Also known as Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT), this is a process where medical professionals take stool from a healthy individual and transfer them to an ailing individual. This allows a diverse population of healthy bacteria (not found in probiotics) to colonize the gut of a sick dog or cat, rebalancing their microbiome. Our FMT supplement is the first of its kind for cats and dogs. We found that many pet parents wanted a solution that didn’t involve an invasive and expensive surgical procedure. That led us to develop affordable, therapeutic “poop capsules.”
What are the wide reaching benefits of keeping animals microbiomes healthy and researching them?
By looking at the microbiome, we can gain insights into how balanced the bacterial community is and whether it supports beneficial bacteria known to fight inflammation. More than half of pets will suffer from a microbiome-related health condition at some point in their lives. Understanding and supporting your pet’s microbiome throughout their lives can help prevent the development of certain digestive conditions. Imbalances in the gut microbiome may contribute to the development of a number of chronic health conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, food sensitivities, allergies, type 2 diabetes, and even psychological conditions like anxiety. There is tremendous potential to develop new diagnostics based on non-invasive fecal samples as well as therapeutics to prevent and treat chronic illness.
What is the science behind your products for animals?
For the microbiome assessments we use genetic sequencing on the Illumina platform to characterize bacteria (using the 16S rRNA marker gene) in fecal (poop) samples. Then we compare the results with our reference database of healthy dogs and cats. We offer FMT capsules instead of just another probiotic because FMTs have been used extensively in human and veterinary medicine for gastrointestinal conditions, including colitis. In addition, last year an article was published which showed that FMT helps puppies with canine parvovirus recover faster.
What kind of products do you offer?
We provide at home Microbiome Test Assessment Kits for dogs and cats. You send a small sample of your pet’s poop to us and we analyze it with next generation DNA sequencing. Then you receive a detailed report of the types and proportions of bacteria in your pet’s gut with actionable insights to improve gut health. The actionable insights serve as a roadmap to help pet parents and their veterinarian or pet professional make dietary and other important health-related decisions. And for pets with imbalanced microbiomes we have a Gut Restoration Supplement which allows an FMT to be given orally in the convenience of your own home to your dog or cat. The capsule are enteric coated, backed by science and sourced from healthy dog or cat microbes. Learn how our products work.
About Dr. Holly Ganz: Holly Ganz, PhD is a Microbial Ecologist and CEO and Cofounder of AnimalBiome. When she’s not studying the microbiomes of pets and wildlife, Holly can be found roaming the California East Bay hillsides with her rescued herding dogs, Charlie and Darwin.