Keeping your Pets healthy is an integral part of being a responsible pet owner. Making sure your pet eats nutritious foods is very important, but it can be tricky to decipher precisely which foods are the best for dogs and cats. Gail Czarnecki-Maulden holds a Ph.D. in "Animal Nutrition" and claims that paying attention to the state of animal's poop is an important indicator of their overall health and wellness. This claim has led to Gail being christened the "Queen of Poop, " yet it is a title that she does not mind.

Gail has built a career out of researching what fecal matter tells about an animal's overall digestive health and currently works at Purina where she serves as a senior Research analyst.

Recently, via an exclusive interview, Gail discussed her career and more.

Animals, research, and poop

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in working with animals?

Gail Czarnecki-Maulden (CGM): I’ve wanted to work with animals since I was a child. I’ve always enjoyed being around pets. Our family got our first dog when I was ten, a little Yorkie named Clancy. He lived to be seventeen, so we grew up together. When I went to Cornell as an undergrad, I was exposed to a lot of research and thought, “This is really fascinating.” I took courses on both farm animals and companion animals and did an undergraduate research project. The enthusiasm of my professors and the innovative atmosphere spurred my interest in pet nutrition.

MM: How did you gravitate towards studying animal health, specifically poop?

CGM: I started moving in this direction gradually, over time as I was studying in college at Cornell and then at the University of Illinois. I started to understand how the digestive tract is the center of everything, how it affects many aspects of health.

Every new published discovery heightened my interest. After I moved to St. Louis, a few of us went to Washington University to listen to a group of scientists talk about their research with the gut microbiome. That was an “ah ha” moment for me. We had been working on promoting intestinal health, immune function and healthy growth and aging by providing probiotics (beneficial bacteria) and prebiotics (food for beneficial bacteria).

However, until that time I never thought about how much gut bacteria could affect other aspects of health. For example, the bacteria in your gut can send signals to your brain. Virtually every day new research studies are published demonstrating how the environment in our gut influences our overall health, and it’s exciting to be a part of that.

MM: What sorts of things can scientists and/or medical professionals discover from examining fecal samples?

CGM: Examining a fecal sample can help a scientist learn about the presence of parasites and bacterial infections, but also about the basic immune status of the pet and nutrient absorption. We can look at the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut and how they contribute to health.

We are learning that you can even look at microbiota composition to determine how susceptible pets are to becoming overweight.

MM: Do you mostly conduct research for dogs and cats or have you worked with some other animals too?

CGM: I’ve worked with dogs and cats during my twenty-seven years at Purina and during my time as a faculty member at the University of Illinois. Back when I was in college, there were less than half a dozen pet nutritionists in the country. My undergraduate college advisor told me that it’s fine to work with dogs and cats, but that I would never find a job because there just were not many jobs in pet nutrition. I didn’t let that deter me from following my passion. When I graduated from grad school, I managed to get one of the few faculty positions in the world in companion animal nutrition.

It proved what I heard growing up: “Do what you love doing and don’t let anyone tell you, “You can’t do it.” Now there are dozens of talented pet nutritionists.

MM: You have been named the "Queen of Poop," so what are your thoughts on that particular title?

CGM: I think it’s funny. Whenever I’m talking to anyone about almost anything, it always seems to come back to poop and what’s going on in the gut. There’s so much in a pet’s body that relates to what happens in their intestines, and nutrition plays such a large role in a pet’s health. It’s something that has fascinated me since I was in college. So, the title fits – I even refer to myself that way.

Healthy foods and nutritious diets

MM: Typically, what kinds of foods do you think are the best for pets to eat?

CGM: I think the most important thing you can do for your pet is research your pet food. Look into who makes the food; is it made in their factories or by someone else; make sure nutritionists developed the food, and make sure the food has scientific data behind it. If you call any pet food manufacturer, they should be able to answer those questions. Also, look for foods that give your dogs a glossy coat and good fecal quality.

MM: How did you come to work with Purina and what exactly does your job entail?

CGM: I joined Purina after being a tenured faculty member at the University of Illinois. In joining Purina, I saw an opportunity to do so much more to affect the lives of individual pets. I’ve stayed here for nearly thirty years because the company philosophy matches my goals and outlook on life.

Purina is a very ethical company, which I love. We’re trying to make lives better for pets. There is a real spirit of innovation here, and we’re allowed to pursue things that are ahead of their time. We’re empowered to pursue areas of work that are cutting edge, and our management encourages this. For a researcher, you can’t ask for more than that.

My role here is to work with a team of scientists who research the role of nutrition and its impact on pets’ digestive health to help pets live long healthy and happy lives. We focus our efforts on examining key components of pets’ poop to understand overall pet health and nutritional performance of food and treats. The four key indicators of fecal health that we study are Hardness and texture; Bacteria levels and composition; Digestibility and nutrient absorption; Form, composition, and odor of the poop.

MM: What do you wish more people knew about animal nutrition?

CGM: Nutrients are way more important than ingredients. Your body doesn’t care where nutrients came from; it’s the mix of nutrients and their ratios to each other. Some people will pick one ingredient and say it’s “bad” for your pet. If you have a nutritionist formulating your diet, you have a blend of ingredients that complement each other to provide a balanced diet for pets. It’s a difference between a chef and a cook. We carefully blend specific ingredients to provide the appropriate nutrients and nutrient ratios in all our foods. Each ingredient we use has a purpose, and we’re looking to complement them and provide nutrient balance in our foods.

That’s why you need a nutritionist making your pet food.

MM: Do you think that pet food companies are doing all they can and should to ensure healthy pet diets, or do you think some changes could be made?

CGM: I think most pet food companies are doing all they can to ensure healthy food for pets. For companies such as Purina that are science focused, we need to continue to keep up with the science and create innovations that can further pets’ lives. We look at areas that pet owners struggle with, and look for ways to solve it. For instance, we know dogs and cats experience times of stress in their lives, and this stress can lead to digestive issues.

Our dream was first to minimize or even eliminate the onset of these digestive problems, and then, if they were happening with a pet, help restore them to normal digestion as soon as possible.

We’ve been studying probiotics for many years and found that we can provide significant benefits when feeding certain strains added to a diet. We launched our product FortiFlora after many successful trials with both dogs and cats. We’ve found we can restore intestinal balance in many pets within a week of using FortiFlora.Our R&D group works as a startup company. We imagine what’s possible to improve the lives of pets and then spend whatever time it takes to research, and possibly commercialize the idea.

MM: How do you envision your career panning out over the next ten years?

CGM: There are a lot of things related to gut health that will come out as nutritional innovations over the next few years, and I plan to play a role in bringing those innovations to pet owners.

I think people will hear a lot more about how to effectively use probiotics with pets in the near future. We’re doing a lot of work in this area and on how different probiotics can have different benefits. Pet owners should feed probiotics almost daily, or more regularly, especially to puppies, kittens and young dogs and cats. Feed probiotic for a few weeks after they arrive in a new home. A carefully formulated probiotic is great to help pets in stressful situations, such as travel or changing homes or when they get older and get more digestive upset. That’s when a good probiotic can make a difference.