Sept. 9 (UPI) -- To maintain healthy gut flora in captive rodents, new research suggests caretakers should feed the animals native foods.
As numerous studies have shown, the community of microbes living in the guts of humans and animals is strongly influenced by their environment and diet. Research has also highlighted the important role gut flora plays in health.
When animals are brought into captivity, their environment changes and their diets often become artificial. As a result, the microbial community in their gut is altered. Health problems can result.
Researchers at the University of Utah have found a solution.
"We found that these changes can be avoided by providing wild diets to captive animals," researcher Rodolfo Martinez-Mota said in a news release. "Our results also show that commercial diets are the main driver that induces microbial changes in captive rodents. We could hypothesize that the same applies to other captive animals."
While studying woodrat species native to the deserts of the American Southwest, researchers realized the gut flora of the captive rodents becomes less diverse when they are fed an artificial diet. The rodents have evolved the ability to neutralize the toxins in a variety of desert plants.
To study the phenomenon, scientists collected a population of white-throated woodrats from the desert in Utah, a species that has an affinity for prickly pear cactus. In the lab, researchers fed the rodents two different diets, native and artificial.
When fed an artificial diet, the rats lost a third of their gut microbe species, including those from the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus genera.
"Both bacterial genera are associated with detoxification of the plant toxins ingested by the woodrat," Martinez-Mota said. "Thus, we could hypothesize that some functions of the woodrat core microbiome were compromised when animals fed on artificial diets."
Though by the end of the two-week experiment, the woodrats fed chow gained back 10 percent of their gut flora diversity, their microbiome was still left significantly compromised. Captive woodrats fed a native diet retained 90 percent of their gut flora diversity.
Researchers shared the results Monday in Nature's Multidisciplinary Journal of Microbial Ecology.
"People who maintain wild animals in captivity should supplement animal diets with food items that resemble food consumed in the wild," Martinez-Mota said. "If supplementing a diet with wild food is not possible, then food items with similar nutritional/chemical composition should be provided."