Personalized nutrition: The ‘holy grail’ of pet industry
“I think as we're looking at our own guts and thinking about how we take care of our own health, and people are starting to realize ‘hey, that's similar to what I should be thinking about for our pets,” explained Carlton Osborne, co-founder and CEO of AnimalBiome.
Based in San Francisco Bay, AnimalBiome uses microbiome research and products to help pet parents regain control of their pets chronic GI issues.
The company was born out of the “KittyBiome Project” — a postdoc project by Osborne’s co-founder and wife, Holly Ganz, PhD. Through her research at University of California, Davis, the microbial ecologist found that about 20% of the cats that participated in her project had GI problems, something Ganz pinpointed directly to the microbiome.
After noticing a gap in the market, Osborne encouraged Ganz to leave research and start a company focused on animal microbial health. “So she started Animal Biome in 2016, and we now have the largest database of cat and dog microbiome samples in the world, and we've developed a healthy reference set,” said Osborne.
10k and growing
Osborne explained that the company has sequenced samples from over 10,000 cats and dogs through their home testing offering.
“So when they send us in a sample, we compare it to our healthy reference and what we found a lot of times is perceived food allergies are actually imbalances in the microbiome. And if you address that imbalance in the microbiome, the perceived food allergy goes away,” said Osborne.
Osborne said that the team has found that about 50% of the imbalances can be addressed simply through a diet change, most often by increasing protein and fiber to rebalance the gut.
He added that E. coli is a common bad actor and AnimalBiome offers a set of supplements to address that problem. The final and least common scenario is when pets are missing beneficial microbes and require fecal microbiota transplant capsules.
AnimalBiome has done about 12 studies with pet food companies that examined the effect of their food on the microbiome.
“We found that diet can have as big an effect on the microbiome as a fecal transplant. And so our view is that most of what pets need is modulation of their diet to promote a healthy microbiome. It's really more the rare cases, I'd say 20% or less, where they actually need a fecal transplant, but most pets would benefit from an understanding that food will nurture healthy microbiome for them,” explained Osborne.
Osborne said like humans, every pet's microbiome is different, including how they respond to diets.
“We did one study where we had siblings from the same litter in the same household get introduced to a new diet and their microbiome’s response to that diet diverged. So you would think like, they’re siblings in the same environment, they're eating the same food, their microbiome should be pretty pretty close, the response to food should be the same and it's not always true,” explained Osborne. “And so our view is that there's no one food that's right for every cat or dog and that it's really a matching of pets microbiome to their diet.”
One of the most interesting observations Osborne noted is that the gut microbiome of cats and dogs is actually less diverse than humans. He infers that over time, breeding and constricted diets has led to less diversity than what they once had when they were wild animals.
“And that actually makes it a little bit easier to characterize what's going on with cats and dogs,” he said.
The path to personalized nutrition
Personalized nutrition is a field many would dub the future of health and wellness. Access to at-home testing is giving momentum to the category, and pet food companies are taking notice.
“We’ve worked with, I would say three of the five top pet food companies in the US and they're all sort of viewing personalized nutrition as a bit of a ‘holy grail’ and I think more and more they're realizing that the path to personalized nutrition leads through the microbiome,” observed Osborne. “I think the companies that are going to get there first are the ones that already do what is called ‘commercial fresh.’ So brands like the Farmer’s Dog, PetPlate, they're sort of like Blue Apron for pets. And so it's higher quality food, it's not personalized today. I do think that because of the way they're delivering it, they might be able to get there first.”
However, Osborne said one factor that’s holding back the category is legacy brands.
“So like Mars and Purina, they control most of the food on the market. Mars is buying vet practices for instance. And so when there's that kind of consolidation, sometimes it's harder for new entrants to come in. Those companies sort of control the agenda for change,” said Osborne.
“It will happen, but I think that the incumbents are resistant to anything that's going to challenge their kibble kingdom. That's probably the main thing, but there's a lot of the commercial fresh guys getting a fair amount of investment and many of them are looking at the microbiome as a category in pet health. And so we were the first in the space with microbiome testing, but now there are three other companies that do it, including Purina.”
So while we shouldn’t expect the kibble kingdom to come crashing down tomorrow, big brands who don’t want to budge may want to brace for a take-over.
“It's becoming a thing, just a little later, a little slower than we expected," said Osborne.
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