Last week, I was discussing a canine patient’s case with one of the veterinarians at the Southern Oregon Veterinary Specialty Center. The dog had a long history of severe digestive problems, and the vet brought up the suggestion of a fecal transplant for the animal. I thought it was a great idea, and was pleasantly surprised that a conventional veterinarian—especially a board-certified internal medicine specialist—would consider doing such a non-conventional treatment. So what exactly is a fecal transplant and why would anyone think it’s a good thing to do?
Before we dive into that subject, we should discuss what the microbiome is and why it is important to your pet’s health. The term describes the population of up to 1,000 different bacteria and yeasts that live in or on an animal’s body. It has been estimated that bacteria outnumber an animal’s body cells by a ratio of 10 to 1, with most of those bacteria residing in the large intestine. These microscopic organisms are responsible for essential vitamin production, breakdown of toxins, digestion of plant fiber and prevention of growth of harmful bacteria. Although it sounds quite unappealing, rabbits actually need to eat their own feces to get the nutrients that are formed by the effects of bacterial fermentation in their large intestines.There has been an enormous amount of research in the last few years into the relationship between the microbiome and health issues for animals and humans alike.
Imbalances in the gut microflora have been related to conditions ranging from irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease to rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. It is also believed that a mother passes on her microbiome to her offspring, and so may be a way that disease states can be passed on from one generation to the next.
Recent animal studies have suggested a link between certain types of bacteria in the gut and the propensity to obesity. Even more surprising is the recent discovery that certain types of gut bacteria actually manufacture neurotransmitters, the chemicals brain cells use to communicate with each other. Researchers were able to show that by altering the population of certain bacteria in rat’s intestines, they could alter the rats behavior making some rats depressed, and others hyperactive. It’s amazing to think that someday behavioral problems such as fear-aggression in dogs or inappropriate urination in cats could be treated by the administration a certain type of bacteria rather than a drug such as Prozac.
Evidently, there are a lot of vitally important things going on in the dark unseen regions of the body. The increasing popularity beneficial bacteria supplements known as probiotics for both animals and humans points to the growing public awareness of the importance of a healthy intestinal microbiome. There are many things that can cause an imbalance of the microbiome ranging from poor diets and stress to overuse of pharmaceutical drugs such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and steroids. Because of this, I am extremely judicious in my use of these medications in my veterinary practice, and frequently choose herbal treatments as an healthier alternative.
So let’s get back to the subject of fecal transplants. It has been discovered that the administration of fecal matter from a healthy individual to a chronically ill patient can have miraculous healing effects. In the case of the dog I mentioned previously, he had a long history of multiple courses of antibiotics and now had a severe inflammatory condition of his intestines. Is his case, and others like him, the gut imbalance is so severe that oral probiotics alone are inadequate to address the problem. I’ll spare you the details of how this is actually done, but suffice it to say that this procedure is rapidly gaining acceptance in both veterinary and human medicine as a valid therapy for many diseases that are poorly responsive to more conventional treatments.
The study of the microbiome and its role in health and disease is still in its infancy. Advanced technologies using DNA identification have improved the ability to “map out” the multitude of microorganisms present in healthy and diseased individuals, but it it still amazingly complex. Microbiomes differ between species and between individuals, and also change depending on diet and environmental conditions. As our understanding of the complex role of the microbiome evolves, we are becoming more aware of how critical billions of microscopic organisms are to our pet’s health as well as our own.
Dr. Jeffrey Judkins is the owner of Animalkind Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Historic Jacksonville