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is bacteria making pets obese?



You’ve probably heard the adage, “You are what you eat.” Now, science has suggested a slight tweak on that saying: “You are what you feed your gut bacteria.”

Our body’s largest immune organ is our digestive system, and the past decade of research has shown us how vital gut bacteria are to our overall health and well-being.


While studies on the gut microbiome of dogs and cats are limited, findings published in mBio shows how important a dog’s diet is in determining which gut bacteria proliferate and how those microbes may lead to obesity and other diseases. 


The growing problem of pet obesity


I founded the non-profit Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) in 2005 to better understand the pet obesity epidemic. Each year, we conduct a prevalence survey to calculate the number of overweight and obese dogs and cats in the U.S.


Currently, over half the nation’s pets are classified as too heavy by their veterinary healthcare team. That’s a big deal because obesity can lead to serious health problems, including diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, cancer, and more.


In addition to measuring how big pet obesity is, APOP is committed to educating veterinarians and pet parents on the causes of obesity and how to prevent it. That’s why research conducted by Nestle Purina PetCare on the canine microbiome is intriguing; it sheds new light on the role bacteria may play in the development of obesity in dogs.


A new link between bacteria and obesity in dogs


The experiment evaluated equal numbers of lean and overweight dogs in groups of 32 Labrador retrievers and 32 beagles. For the first four weeks, all dogs were fed the same diet.


After this baseline feeding period, half the dogs were fed a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet and the other half a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet for an additional four-weeks. The gut microbes were evaluated at the end of each study period. The results were convincing.


After the initial baseline feeding period, the gut bacteria were remarkably similar among all dogs. Regardless of breed or weight, the bacterial types, counts, and ratios were generally uniform when fed the control diet.


After the experimental diets were fed, dramatic differences in the gut microbiome were observed. For example, dogs fed the low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet had high numbers of Bacteriodes uniformis and Clostridium butyricum compared to baseline values and the high-protein, low-carb group.  


The dogs given the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet had a substantial decrease in the ratio of Bacteroidetes to Firmicutes bacteria. These dogs also had elevated numbers of Clostridium hiranonis, Clostridium perfringens, and Ruminococcus gnavus, more than double the low-protein, high-carb group.


Weighing the results


While these specific bacteria may not mean much to many pet parents, to nutritional researchers they’re clues to obesity and other diseases. The scientists found the results were more pronounced in overweight dogs, indicating interventions in obese dogs may be more effective and helpful.


The hope is this experiment will lead to larger studies in multiple breeds with more co-variabilities.


If the science holds true in dogs the way it has in humans, we’re on our way to better understanding obesity as a disease. More importantly, these studies are paving the way for future strategic use of specialized animal pre- and probiotics and dietary formulations designed to help reduce pet obesity.


What we’ve certainly learned from this study is that the synergistic relationship between diet and gut bacteria is real and important. We are what we eat and what we eat feeds our bacteria.


We’re one step closer to comprehending how feeding those gut bacteria ultimately affects the health of our pets.   

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