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The power of poop: Guide Dogs on cutting edge of fecal transplant technology

Fecal transplants at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto

Palmetto's Southeastern Guide Dogs is perfecting fecal transplants to potentially eradicate gastrointestinal problems in puppies and parents.
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Palmetto's Southeastern Guide Dogs is perfecting fecal transplants to potentially eradicate gastrointestinal problems in puppies and parents.

Fecal transplants are nothing new, but Palmetto's Southeastern Guide Dogs is perfecting and simplifying the process for its puppies and service dogs in training.

Diarrhea and other gastrointestinal issues can be a common problem for dogs, especially when grouped in a kennel environment. How they contract it and the varying efforts to combat the problem can be time consuming and costly. Antibiotics are often the first line of defense, but can also cause a much larger problem by killing good bacteria, leaving bad bacteria to become more prevalent.

Southeastern's head veterinarian Kevin Conrad began searching for a more cost-effective and efficient treatment for recurring diarrhea in puppies that live together, which in turn allows for the transfer of the diarrhea-causing Clostridium Per Fringens gene toxin from puppy to puppy.

Fecal transplants are available for humans, as doctors battle the Clostridium Difficile gene toxin. According to the Centers for Disease Control, C-Diff was found in 347,000 Americans in 2014, leading to 14,000 deaths. Fecal transplants in humans are costly and complex with tested stool being delivered to the patient via colonoscopy, endoscopy or enema. The procedure replaces the good bacteria suppressed by antibiotics that allow C-Diff to overpopulate the colon.

Conrad has found it doesn't have to be that complicated. A short 30-second procedure using a small feeding tube and a syringe of liquefied stool will cure a dog inflicted with severe diarrhea virtually overnight on average 93 percent of the time.

"We see 250 dogs a year and there were a lot of repeat offenders with symptoms not going away," said Conrad.

"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 said he learned of fecal transplants and began sending out stool samples to determine what kind of bacteria was being used in the transplants.

"The problem is that they would only tell us what the bad bacteria they were finding and not the good ones," he said. "So I started doing my own cultures and from there it was pretty easy. So was finding donors. We just needed dogs that appeared to never have any digestive issues, even if they got in the trash and ate something they shouldn't have. If they were naturally inclined not to get sick, then those dogs have the right bacteria."

Conrad said he simply froze stool samples from the donor dogs, did the cultures to ensure the right bacteria was present, liquefied the samples in sterile saline solution and conducted the short procedure.

"Immediately we were having an 87 percent success rate after one treatment," he said. "For those needing a second treatment, the success rate is 93 percent and there has not been one that has had diarrhea since."

And that got Conrad thinking, which has put Southeastern on the forefront of fecal transplant science.

"We decided to go backward with diarrhea puppies to diarrhea adults and found high levels of bad bacteria in pre-litter moms," said Conrad. "So what we tried is to do a fecal transplant on a pre-litter mom while she is pregnant and she's dropping a whole litter of puppies without diarrhea issues. So now we are not only treating it but preventing it. Now what we'll find out, is have we cured diarrhea throughout the dog's lifetime."

Conrad's simplification of the process and theories of potentially eradicating diarrhea issues associated with dogs being grouped together will save Southeaster an untold amount of money by significantly reducing antibiotic use and the time it takes to provide relief to the dogs.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.

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