Skip to main content

Nutrigenomics: Uncovering the effects of nutrition in pets

Nutrition and the environment are the two main factors that can affect the health of a pet.

Nutrition and the environment are the two main factors that can affect the health of a pet. Better understanding of nutrition is possible through nutrigenomics.

In a recent live webinar, Dr. Kristen Brennan, research manager at Alltech, discussed how the science of nutrigenomics can be applied to pet nutrition. Click here and sign-up to view the recorded webinar and the interactive question-and-answer session.


Precise nutrition: What does it mean?


When we talk about precision nutrition, or target nutrition, we are referring to specific dog/cat foods for specific breeds, age groups or sizes of dogs/cats. We know that certain breeds might be predisposed to joint arthritis (e.g., larger dogs), and other breeds might be more sensitive to gastrointestinal issues. The idea behind precise nutrition is designing the best nutrition for an animal based on its genetics, physical build and lifestyle.


How long has nutrigenomics been around? What drove this technology to the forefront of nutrition?


Nutrigenomics has been around since the evolution of the first living thing, because nutrition has always influenced the genome. We just figured out a way to measure it. Really, the sequencing of genomes is what drove this technology forward. Once we understood what each part of the genome coded for, we could capture that information.


What advantages are there for us to use nutrigenomics studies compared to tradition nutrition studies?


The number one advantage is purely the sheer volume of information we can get. We can profile thousands of genes and their activity in one snapshot versus just a few phenotypic measures like body weight. Another benefit is that these can be relatively non-invasive. We need only small samples of tissue and that can be as simple as bloodwork.


Can we use nutrigenomics to explain why some breeds respond different to the same diets?


Down the road, that is the goal. We are starting to understand changes in the genome’s sequence (called SNPs) and their role in health. Eventually, we hope we can link those changes to how dogs or cats respond to diets. The work being done now is more “big picture.”


Gene expression: What does up- and down-regulating mean? Which is better?


By up-regulating (“turning on”) or down-regulating (“turning off”) genes, the body changes the levels of the proteins that make up structures and functions in the cells. This, in turn, alters physiological processes like energy production or immune response. Nutrigenomics is the field of research we use to study if changes in genes occur with changes in the animal’s diet.


Which is better: up-regulating or down-regulating? The answer is, it depends. For instance, if you have genes that are responsible for cancer cell progression and you see an increase (i.e., the genes turn on, or up-regulate), that is a negative thing, but if you see a decrease (i.e., the genes turn off, or down-regulate), that is a good thing. However, if you have genes that are involved in a different function, such as protein translation or energy, increases (up-regulation) are good.


What do we know about obesity and gene expression?


More than half of all cats and dogs are obese in the U.S. Nutrigenomics helps to identify the molecular markers associated with, or before, body weight gain, potentially offering an opportunity to identify targets for nutritional intervention before a problem becomes bigger, literally.


Nutrients and molecules: What is the impact on gene expression?


What we’ve seen on a molecular level is that the form of the nutrients — for example, organic trace minerals versus inorganic — is extremely influential to how an animal responds. By observing genetic expression, we can determine which form of a trace mineral will have the most beneficial effect.


Nutrients and energy: What is the real benefit of organic selenium?


We like to talk about the mitochondria being the “powerhouse” or “battery” pack of the cell. Every cell in your body has mitochondria, which provide energy. We have found that selenium plays a role in controlling the gene that essentially says, “make more mitochondria.” PGC-1 alpha is a key regulator that says to your body, “We need more capacity for energy, so let’s make more mitochondria.”


Nutrients and inflammation: Omega-3 fatty acids can have an impact


Nutrigenomics is telling us that omega-3 fatty acids can decrease the transcription genes involved in joint inflammation, opening the doors for potential nutritional therapy or alleviation of symptoms.


Nutrients and digestive health: Other applications of nutrigenomics


By using nutrigenomics, we have found that special molecules from yeast-based polysaccharides (prebiotic fibers) can increase goblet cell counts and mucin, protecting the mucous membrane and, ultimately, the intestine from chemical and physical injury.


The bottom line on nutrigenomics and pet nutrition:


  • Nutrition and the environment are the two main factors that can affect the health of a pet.
  • Nutrigenomics examines the nutrient-gene interactions on a genome-wide scale.
  • Better understanding of nutrition is possible through nutrigenomics. If we understand the “why,” we can figure out the “how.”
  • Nutrigenomics enables us to design diets to target specific concerns such as obesity and joint inflammation.