The Incredible Science Behind Your Pet's Microbiome

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Did you know that the micro-organisms living in and on your body outnumber your body's own cells? The same is true for our pets. Science shows that the community of microbes — the dog microbiome and the cat microbiome — have a mutually beneficial relationship with pet’s bodies. In other words, the microbiome and the body are great partners that work to maintain your pet’s overall health and wellness.

Just What Is a Microbiome?

"Micro" means extremely small, while "biome" refers to a natural community of living things that inhabit an ecosystem. Think of a dog microbiome or a cat microbiome as a microscopic population of billions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa that live and thrive in their ecosystem -- their body.

The particular mix of micro-organisms is unique to each dog or cat, just as it is in humans. Interestingly, even though these micro-organisms may vary in different individuals, they often do the same things. One example from the human microbiome is metabolic function, as discussed in this Nature Communications article. Another article in Nature explained that people and their pets actually exchange and share their microbes with each other.

While you will often hear about the gut microbiome, there are also microbes that live on the skin, in the oral cavity, in the lower female reproductive system, and in the respiratory tract, among other places. Each of these places is inhabited by different types of microbes that are ideally suited to its features and conditions. That means each part of the body has its own unique microbiome.

Within the ecosystem of the digestive tract, there is a thriving gut microbiome. While gut microbes can be found in the stomach, small intestine and upper large intestine, the majority live in the colon.

How Does the Microbiome Develop in Companion Animals?

Dogs and cats are not born with a microbiome. Puppies and kittens start building one immediately after birth.

They get their microbes from:

  • Their mother.
  • Their indoor and outdoor environments.
  • You and the other people in their home.
  • The toys they play with.
  • The food they eat.

As puppies and kittens grow and mature, their microbiomes change and mature as well. The microbiome remains stable in most adult dogs and cats unless they become unhealthy from illness or improper nutrition.

How Does the Microbiome Affect My Pet's Overall Health?

The microbiome can affect almost every organ in your pet's body, making a balanced microbiome vital for overall health.

For example, gut bacteria don't just aid digestion. According to researchers at Texas A&M University's Gastrointestinal Laboratory, they also:

  • Synthesise vitamins and essential amino acids.
  • Help prevent infections.
  • Strengthen the immune system.
  • Support general health and wellbeing.

In healthy dogs and cats, the microbiome doesn't change very much. Many diseases are associated with gut dysbiosis, which means there are changes in the composition (amount and type) of the gut microbiome that impact its function. Treatment with antibiotics can also affect composition and may be detrimental to the gut microbiome. The microbiome can also be affected by nutrition.

How Does Nutrition Affect the Microbiome?

Food has a big influence on the health and population of the dog and cat microbiome. Even something as seemingly harmless as quickly switching a dog's or cat's food can alter their microbiome. Differing levels of protein, fat, carbohydrates, soluble fiber and insoluble fiber can all influence and alter a dog’s or cat’s microbiome balance.

Even eating table scraps or getting into the kitchen trash can cause digestive upsets in pets, originating from an upset microbiome. As different foods enter the colon, gut bacteria are affected, producing excess gas with bad-smelling compounds, or impacting the pet's stool quality. Therefore, it is best to transition your pet to a new food slowly, giving the gut bacteria time to adapt and maintain balance. 

When you feed your pet, you are also feeding their microbiome. While still in the early stages of research, new discoveries are being made every day that reveal how feeding a pet's microbiome affects their overall health. 

At Hill's Global Pet Nutrition Center, a team of pet scientists and nutritionists are linking the effects of certain nutrients on your pet's microbiome as well as their cells. Understanding the relationship between these nutrients and bacteria is helping us to formulate foods that promote healthy microbiomes. The micro-organisms living in our pets must be properly balanced to promote their health and wellness. What you feed your pet supports their health and helps to maintain the health of their microbiome, which is essential for their overall wellness.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Sarah Wooten

Dr. Sarah Wooten

Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists, Dr. Wooten divides her professional time between small animal practice in Greeley, Colorado, public speaking on associate issues, leadership, and client communication, and writing. She enjoys camping with her family, skiing, SCUBA, and participating in triathlons.