Report: Pet owners jump on the probiotics bandwagon

Americans have grown obsessed over the past few years about the health of our microbiota--the vast colony of microbes that live in our guts and are believed to influence not just our digestive process but also our overall immunity to a host of diseases. That growing interest in the microbiome has turbocharged sales of everything from probiotic supplements to yogurts containing so-called beneficial bugs.

Now that enthusiasm is poised to spill over into the animal health market. North Americans spent $3.1 billion on probiotic-infused products in 2013, according to data compiled by Fast Company. The pet industry has traditionally lagged behind trends on the human side by 7 years, but that's no longer the case, and experts are predicting probiotics will invade animal health products in the next year or two, according to industry experts polled by the magazine.

"A lot of the ideas for pet supplements are simply transposed from human supplements," Philip Brown, a veterinarian and consultant, told Fast Company. "If people take them, it's easier to sell them" for use in pets, he added.

Spending by Americans on supplements for pets is expected to explode from $750 million a year to $1 billion by 2017, says market researcher Packaged Facts. An estimated 7% of pet foods and supplements currently contain probiotics, according to Fast Company.

That said, whether or not tweaking pets' gut microbes will actually make them healthier is an open question. A University of Illinois veterinarian interviewed by Fast Company suggests that probiotics could help orphaned animals that are separated from their mothers too early and hence are unable to consume beneficial bacteria from nursing. Beyond that use, however, veterinarians are relying on human research to clue them in to the benefits of probiotics.

In human medicine, research aimed at unlocking the mysteries of microbiota has generated quite a bit of interest for its potential to yield new drugs and diagnostic tools. In June, Enterome Biosciences of France signed a deal with the Mayo Clinic to research microbiome-based diagnostics for patients battling obesity. And microbiome startup Second Genome has nabbed development deals with the likes of Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) and Pfizer ($PFE).

- here's the Fast Company story

Industry Voices: Microbiome Therapies - Coming to a Clinic Near You