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Milk prebiotics for pet food

Researchers have found that milk oligosaccharide, a supplement which is on trend for infant formulas, may be beneficial for cats and dogs when added to pet diets.

The University of Illinois research provides a better understanding of how milk meets the nutritional needs of newborn kittens and puppies, and how it helps promote gut immunity and establish a healthy gut microbial community early in life.

Human milk oligosaccharide has been a trend in infant formula in recent years as studies have shown the complex carbohydrate supplements mimic human breast milk and act like prebiotics.

However, the research has previously not been extended to pet products despite milk oligosaccharides occurring in all mammals.

“When we first looked into this, there had only been one study on milk oligosaccharides in dogs, and none in domestic cats. The closest were really small studies on a single lion and a single clouded leopard,” said Kelly Swanson, the Kraft Heinz Company Endowed Professor in Human Nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Illinois.

“Our study was the first robust characterisation of dog and cat milk oligosaccharides,” he said.

The foundational study identified three predominant oligosaccharide structures in canine milk: 3'-sialyllactose, 6'-sialyllactose and 2'-fucosyllactose, the same compound showing up in many infant formulas. Together, these three structures made up more than 90% of the total oligosaccharides in canine milk.

Feline milk was much more complex and balanced, with approximately 15 structures making up 90% of total oligosaccharides. Of these, difucosyllactose-N-hexaose b, 3'-sialyllactose and lacto-N-neohexaose represented more than 10% each.

Swanson said that even though domestic dogs and cats both evolved as carnivores, they are metabolically distinct in many ways.

“Although pet cats still exist as true carnivores, pet dogs are omnivorous in nature,” he said.

“These new milk oligosaccharide data highlight another interesting difference between the species, justifying further research to reveal their role in the nutritional and health status of newborn puppies and kittens.”

Testing the pet food

Even before Swanson and his colleagues identified the oligosaccharides in cat and dog milk, the pet food industry was beginning to recognise the potential benefits of these compounds as supplements in pet foods. In 2019, Swiss biotech company Gnubiotics Sciences announced an animal milk oligosaccharide-like product known as GNU100, but it hadn’t been tested in animals.

In two separate studies, both published in the Journal of Animal Science, Swanson and his team determined the safety, palatability and digestibility of GNU100 in dogs and cats.

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