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Inside The Probiotics Movement… For Pets

Gut bacteria products is a big part the $750 million pet supplement industry.

Inside The Probiotics Movement… For Pets
[Photo: Flickr user Michelle Tribe]

Your little furry darling’s contributions to the yard or litter box might seem like one of the downers of pet ownership. But as in our own guts, microbes can influence intestinal tract health as well as the immune system.

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Just as we’re learning to cultivate our healthy human microbiota, our pets’ tracts are starting to dawn on us, too–and attract a heap of consumer dollars.

We already spend more than $750 million on supplements for our pets–a number that is projected to approach $1 billion by 2017, almost doubling from 2008 sales, according to market research firm Packaged Facts.

“The pet-supplement industry follows very closely–but somewhat lagging–the human industry,” says Bill Bookout, president and founding member of the National Animal Supplement Council, an industry group that monitors product quality. Last year, North American consumers spent an estimated $3.1 billion on probiotic products–about a third of which came from yogurt–according to research collected by the website Statista. But what was once a seven-year lag behind human products is now closer to just a year or two, says Philip Brown, a practicing veterinarian and consultant to multiple pet product companies, including Nutri-Vet and Newman’s Own Organics.

About 7% of pet supplements and food currently contain probiotics, says Eric Pierce, director of strategy and insights at market research group New Hope Natural Media. “My presumption is that [this] is a growing number and that it will likely follow human food trends and continue to grow,” he says. “This would suggest that some of those who are innovating and taking risks in pet food are placing bets on probiotics.”

Bookout agrees: “Probiotics are certainly a growth area for animals.”

So get ready for probiotics to be sprinkled over food via powders, snuck into treats, and hidden in kibble. But do they actually help animal health?

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“I think that they have incredible potential that is almost untapped in veterinary medicine,” says Maureen McMichael, a vet and associate professor at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the University of Illinois.

In particular, she says, probiotics could help young animals that are separated from their mother early and are unable to pick up beneficial bacteria from her milk. (Although McMichael notes, because puppy and kitten gut flora look so different from that of adult animals, special formulations down the road will be necessary.) And like humans, when an animal goes on broad-spectrum antibiotics, whether for an illness or procedure, those drugs can wipe out good gut microbes. So a probiotic could help them bounce back faster.

With so much more awareness in the human market about probiotics, however, McMichael notes, a lot of animal companies have “just kind of jumped on the bandwagon.”

“A lot of the ideas for pet supplements are simply transposed from human supplements,” Brown says. “If people take them, it’s easier to sell them” for animals. And companies are hoping that plays out. As the folks at Packaged Facts found, although some 59% of dog owners buy supplements for themselves, only 25% of owners buy supplements for their dogs, creating a huge opportunity for pet supplement growth.

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But you do have to allow for certain adaptations, Brown notes. We might be able to swallow a pill every morning. But dogs are less into it; and cats will quietly laugh at you (while scratching long swaths of flesh out of your forearms). “Dogs are different–and cats are in their own world,” Brown says. So powders for topping food or chewy treats are a better bet.

Dogs have dominated the pet probiotic market thus far, because, like humans, they’re opportunistic omnivores. Which means that their gut microbes are similar to (though by no means the same as) ours. Cats, on the other hand, are obligate carnivores–evolved with a special collection of microbes that produce the right enzymes to break down meat. That means it’s a wild, unexplored jungle in there.

And probiotic products have not stopped with dogs and cats. Companies are slinging fizzy probiotic water tablets for birds and even probiotic sprays for hermit crabs. But there is not a lot of research behind many of these products–in large part because there’s not a lot of money in the non-furry markets, McMichael says.

What is perhaps most important for the future of the pet probiotic market is reliable distribution. And not just in the sense of having enough retail shelf space. In order for probiotics to work they need to contain live microbes. That’s why many probiotic products–for humans and animals–must be kept refrigerated. Some companies are switching to freeze-dried microbes for longer shelf life at room temperature. But high temps can kill off bugs in most any state, so spraying them on after cooking food or treats is okay, but mixing them in before products are heat-sterilized won’t provide any probiotic boost. (And since dogs can’t read labels or absorb health hype, we’re pretty sure they’re immune to the placebo effect.)

So far, most products are relatively crude, McMichael says. Many companies repurpose bacteria from human probiotics. And even those that have isolated dog-specific bugs, such as Purina (for their FortiFlora supplement), will likely someday be able to target specific strains for specific needs–such as gum disease or stress-related diarrhea.

“It’s a very minimally tapped market,” McMichael says. Which could be good news for the future health of our pets–and for those of us picking up their poop.

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