by Dr Rebecca Delles, Research Scientist, Alltech, USA
Many have heard the age-old adage of let your medicine be your food, and your food be your medicine. Yet, with a plethora of information at our fingertips, how do we decipher what exactly is good nutrition for ourselves and our furry friends?
Cats and dogs have evolved tangential to humans and currently face similar lifestyle challenges upon urbanisation. Currently, most cats and dogs are fed a high carbohydrate diet, quite dissimilar from their ancestors’ carnivorous fare. Most pet owners consider their animals to be integral members of the family, which has shifted purchasing behaviour toward more humanised food options, such as non-GMOs, grain-free and organic. Despite the emergence of new market categories, such as premiumisation and functional foods, the root commonality is overall animal health and wellness.
The mammalian gastrointestinal tract (GI) is colonised by a dynamic collection of microorganisms, commonly known as the gut microbiota, and plays a key role in physiological and pathological conditions. The composition of the gut microbiota varies by individual and is impacted by a variety of factors, including diet, antibiotic use, GI disease, age, genetics and living environment. Historically, the role of the GI tract was primarily associated with nutrient absorption and waste removal. However, knowledge regarding the gut microbiota has expanded, recognising its association with a wide range of physiological processes ranging from immunity to metabolism to neurobehavioural development. More specifically, the role of the gut microbiota on host immunity and its impact on overall wellness has been an evolving field for both humans and companion animals alike. The pandemic increased awareness of the relationship between nutrition, immunity and overall health in both people and animals. As a result, this increased consciousness of immunity and wellness has resulted in the intertwining of trends with the premiumisation and humanisation of pet foods lending toward targeted nutrition with key drivers in gut health and immunity.
Answering the big question
Consumer trends in the pet food market have led to an expansion in food and supplements utilising functional ingredients specific to gut health. So how does one know which gut health offering is better for your dog or cat? Regarding pet food, when broken down into broad categories, there are the macronutrients (i.e., carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) and micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and functional ingredients. Functional ingredients associated with gut health typically fall into either prebiotic, probiotics or postbiotics. Prebiotics stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria. Typically, these come from the indigestible fibre portions within food or formulated into the food product. When feeding prebiotics, the goal is to provide functional components that will increase the populations of good bacteria in the gut and promote microbial diversity. Mannan oligosaccharide products (MOS), such as Bio-Mos® and Actigen®, have been shown to elicit a positive impact on gut health in a wide variety of species ranging from shrimp to dogs. Bio-Mos and Actigen have been shown to benefit gut health through reducing the level of pathogenic bacteria within the GI tract, enhancing the growth of beneficial bacterial populations, and modulating the lining of the GI tract. Specifically, the shift in bacterial populations towards more favourable species such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium occurs through the removal of several pathogenic bacteria species.
Additionally, MOS has been shown to stimulate mucin production by goblet cells, which forms a protective layer of gel-like mucus over the epithelial surface. Mucins also aid in the binding and clearing of bacteria from the intestine. Since the GI epithelial surface comprises only a single layer of cells, it relies on a dynamic and interactive system between mucus layers, intestinal epithelial cells and the microbiota to maintain intestinal homeostasis. As such, MOS products like Actigen work to optimise GI health and function through a process of microbial repair and restoration.
Probiotics are comprised of live and/or deactivated bacteria that elicit a health benefit to the host when administered in adequate amounts. Most probiotic strains used in companion animals typically belong to lactic acid bacteria (LAB). Probiotics are proposed to benefit the host through the production of antimicrobial compounds, enhancing the growth of beneficial endogenous microorganisms, outcompeting pathogenic microbes for nutrients and adhesion sites along the GI tract, and altering the microbial metabolism. While LAB comprise a small portion of the canine gut microbiome, they have been shown to modify the intestinal microbial ecosystem when incorporated into the diet. Thus, the use of products such as Yea-Sacc® and LactoSacc™ may improve intestinal health in companion animals and could help mitigate the occurrence of GI dysfunctions, such as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis is the alteration of the gut microbiota that favours pathogenic bacterial species that promote intestinal inflammation and is associated with acute and chronic GI disorders. Incorporating functional ingredients, such as probiotics, may serve as a useful tool to either aid the recovery of dysbiosis or serve as a strategy to manipulate the gut microbiota that favours a healthy GI state.
The breakdown of prebiotics by probiotics forms postbiotics, which are beneficial bioactive compounds that promote a healthy GI system. While the area of postbiotics is relatively new, recent research supports the interaction between postbiotic metabolites with the intestinal epithelium and GI immunity. The combination of natural compounds, including short-chain fatty acids, organic minerals and functional yeast components found in products like Tynagen™, has been shown to promote a healthy gut flora and maintain effective immune responses, even under stress conditions. Thus, the inclusion of postbiotics may provide an additional benefit in animals prone to GI distress.
Improving the well-being of companion animals includes the incorporation of a nutritionally balanced diet with an active lifestyle. While there is a variety of food products and nutritional supplements that aim to promote a healthy GI system, evidence suggests that the inclusion of prebiotics, probiotics, postbiotics or a combination of all three may be useful in fostering canine and feline wellness. Nevertheless, the incorporation of pre-, pro- and postbiotics may act in a similar manner to Alltech’s Seed, Feed and Weed program. Probiotics act to seed the gut, while prebiotics feed the gut, and a combination of pre-, proand postbiotics aim to weed out pathogenic bacteria, resulting in a healthier GI system. While there is growing interest and knowledge on the potential therapeutic effects of the modification of the intestinal microbiota from pre-, pro- and postbiotics, further exploration of the canine and feline microbiota is needed.