I have some exciting news to report on the life-saving procedure known as fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT). Veterinary researchers at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, led by Dr. Arnon Gal, a board-certified specialist in small-animal internal medicine and veterinary pathology, are looking for cats and dogs with diabetes to investigate whether FMT is a viable treatment for the disease.
For those of you who might not be aware, a fecal microbiota transplant “… is a procedure in which fecal matter, or stool, is collected from a tested donor, mixed with a saline or other solution, strained, and placed in a patient, by colonoscopy, endoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or enema.” In pets, it can also be given in capsule form. This is an ancient, highly effective practice that’s finally reaching conventional, North American medical establishments.
Sadly, diabetes is a common disease not only in humans, but in dogs and cats as well. Treatment for pets often requires daily insulin injections, dietary changes (which I’ll discuss later on in this article), and regular veterinary visits to monitor the condition.
Trying to maintain a furry family member’s glucose levels in the safe range can be time consuming, costly, and stressful for pet parents.
According to Gal, research shows that 20% of dogs and cats are euthanized within a year of a diabetes diagnosis “due to the impact that the intensive management has on the perceived quality of life of both the pet and the owner.” It stands to reason that finding a treatment that reduces or even eliminates pets’ need for insulin shots could dramatically improve both their quality of life and lifespan.
Fecal Transplants Improve a Variety of GI Conditions
The microbiome is the collection of bacteria and other microorganisms that animals carry in and on their bodies. The gastrointestinal (GI) microbiome of mammals consists of a highly diverse community of microorganisms, primarily bacteria (numbering in the trillions), that are found in the intestinal tract. A growing body of research suggests that FMT in animals with GI conditions can provide significant benefits.
For example, diarrhea and other GI issues are a common problem in kenneled dogs. In 2016, Florida veterinarian Dr. Kevin Conrad worked with a guide dog group to address the issue in the animals the group breeds and raises as working dogs. His goal was to find a less costly and time-consuming way to treat the dogs that didn’t involve the use of antibiotics, which often exacerbate the problem.
“We see 250 dogs a year and there were a lot of repeat offenders with symptoms not going away,” Conrad told the Bradenton Herald. “We’d either repeat antibiotics or adjust their feeding. It could take days, weeks or months to get one dog feeling better and I knew there had to be an easier process.”
Conrad took a simple approach to his FMT trials. He identified donor dogs without digestive issues who seemed “naturally inclined not to get sick,” froze their stool samples, cultured them to make sure the right bacteria were present, liquefied the samples in a sterile saline solution, and started performing fecal transplants on the guide dogs.
“Immediately we were having an 87 percent success rate after one treatment,” said Conrad. “For those needing a second treatment, the success rate is 93 percent and there has not been one that has had diarrhea since.”
Next, Conrad decided to backtrack from diarrhea puppies to their moms and discovered high levels of bad bacteria in pre-litter females. He began doing fecal transplants on pregnant mothers who then gave birth to puppies without diarrhea issues. Conrad effectively moved beyond treating the problem to preventing it, and now he’s eager to see if the transplants prevent diarrhea throughout the dogs’ lifetimes.
FMT May Improve Glucose Tolerance and Insulin Sensitivity
“The gut microbiome has recently been recognized as functioning like a hormonal organ (e.g., the thyroid and pancreas) because it produces hormone-like molecules that affect dog and cat tissues,” Gal told the News-Gazette.
“Several types of intestinal bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) by fermentation of dietary fiber. SCFAs influence energy levels, the immune system and the health of the intestine.
Recent studies have indicated a strong link between lower levels of SCFAs made by bacteria in the gut and diseases such as pre-diabetes and diabetes in people. Cats with diabetes have also been found to have fewer SCFA-producing bacteria in their gut microbiomes.”
The theory is that SCFAs may affect diabetes by producing a substance called glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), which makes the pancreas more responsive to blood glucose levels. And according to Gal, fecal transplantation in obese people with diabetes has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.
“Transplantation of feces from a healthy donor into the intestine of a sick patient has been done successfully in people, laboratory rodents and dogs,” Gal explained.
“The procedure was shown to improve insulin sensitivity in obese humans with diabetes. In a recent study from New Zealand, fecal transplantation from healthy dog donors resulted in enriched ‘good bacteria’ for up to 30 days in dogs with acute intestinal inflammation and hemorrhage after a single fecal transplantation.”
How to Involve Your Pet in the Study
Gal believes we’re entering “a new era in veterinary (and human) medicine where we can substantially improve the clinical control of diabetes in dogs and people by manipulating gut microbiota.”
“Cats develop diabetes through a different pathway from dogs,” said Gal. “I believe fecal transplantation has a high potential to induce remission in cats with diabetes, working through the relationship of GLP-1 to pancreatic insulin to substantially improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity.”
The purpose of the UI clinical trial is to test Gal’s theory.
“Currently, it is not known whether transplanting intestinal microbiota from healthy donors to diabetic patients will re-establish ‘good bacteria’ that make SCFAs, decrease the ‘bad bacteria’ associated with diabetes, and lead to better control of blood-glucose levels,” Gal said.
Eligible dogs and cats must have a diagnosis of diabetes, the disease must be under control, and they must be otherwise healthy. Pets accepted for the trial will be provided insulin for the duration of the study. Owners must bring their pet to the hospital several times for tests, which will be funded by the study.
If you live in the vicinity of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana and you’re interested in participating in the trial, you can complete a brief form at to find out if your pet is eligible.
Why It’s so Important to Prevent Diabetes in Pets
While we can all be encouraged by advances in the use of fecal microbiota transplantation to improve the health of pets, with lifestyle-related diseases like diabetes, the real key is preventing the problem in the first place.
Tragically, the number one cause of death in diabetic dogs and cats is not the disease itself, but euthanasia. As discussed earlier, this is because many pet owners find they simply can’t cope with the demands of the disease.
Treatment of diabetes in pets is complex and time consuming. It involves regular monitoring of blood glucose levels, ongoing dietary adjustments, insulin given by injection or oral glucose-regulating drugs, and keeping a constant, careful eye on your sick dog or cat.
Frequent veterinary visits are a way of life, and the cost of checkups, tests, medical procedures, and insulin therapy can really add up. And the toll it takes on your pet’s health and quality of life can also be devastating. That’s why I encourage you start today taking steps to remove any obstacles in the way of a lifetime of good health for your four-legged family member.
Also consider asking your veterinarian to run a test called A1CARE as part of your pet’s routine wellness exam. This test can detect clinical and subclinical/transitional diabetes, as well as give an overall picture of your dog’s or cat’s metabolic health.
Obesity and high carbohydrate diets — Obesity is by far the biggest reason pets develop diabetes. Most pets in the U.S. consume a high calorie, high starch diet, even though canines and felines have no physiological requirement for carbs (e.g., corn, wheat, rice, soy, millet, quinoa) as sources of energy.
Grain-free kibble has made feeding pets even more confusing and contributes to the obesity and diabetic epidemics we’re experiencing. These diets are calorie dense and contain high glycemic potatoes, chickpeas, peas, or tapioca, which require a substantial insulin release from the body.
All the carbs (starch) in your pet’s food — which can be as much as 60% of the contents — break down into sugar. Excess sugar can result in diabetes.
Sedentary lifestyle — Another lifestyle-related reason pets develop diabetes, one that often goes hand-in-hand with poor nutrition, is lack of exercise. Companion animals often lead the same sedentary lifestyles their humans do. It’s not a total lack of movement, it’s just not nearly enough of the kind that’s beneficial for health.
Our pets need daily rigorous exercise (much more than a walk around the block) to keep insulin and glucose levels in check.
Immune-mediated destruction of the pancreas from over-vaccination — There is a growing body of research that connects autoimmune disorders to diabetes, especially in kids and dogs. If your pet’s immune system attacks his pancreas, he can develop diabetes from lack of insulin production.
Dogs are especially prone to immune system attacks on the pancreas, or more specifically, the cells that secrete insulin in the pancreas. This situation points to an autoimmune component in the development of diabetes in canines.
Immune-mediated or autoimmune diseases are caused by overstimulation of the immune system. One of the primary ways your pet’s immune system can be overstimulated is through repetitive yearly vaccinations against diseases he’s already immunized against.
How to Help Ensure Your Pet Never Develops Diabetes
• Help your dog or cat stay at their ideal body weight by feeding a portion-controlled, low glycemic, low carb, species-specific diet. Calculate the number of carbohydrates in your animal’s diet and aim to keep them at less than 20% of total daily calories consumed.
• Your pet needs regular aerobic, muscle-toning, calorie burning exercise. I recommend an absolute minimum of 20 minutes of daily, heart-thumping aerobic exercise. One way to help accomplish this with feline family members is by replacing food bowls with indoor hunting feeders and activities that encourage cats to get active.
• If your pet had at least one well-timed round of puppy or kitten shots, there’s a high likelihood her immunity to those diseases will last a lifetime for core vaccines. Each time a fully immunized pet receives a repetitive set of vaccines, it increases the risk of overstimulating the immune system.
I recommend you find an integrative veterinarian who runs antibody titer tests to measure the antibody response from previous vaccinations. Titer results will tell you whether re-vaccination is necessary.
This content was originally published here.