BACKGROUND: Current research has led to the appreciation that there are differences in the commensal microbiota between healthy individuals and individuals that are predisposed to disease. Treatments to reverse disease pathogenesis through the manipulation of the gastrointestinal (GI) microbiota are now being explored. Normalizing microbiota between different strains of mice in the same study is also needed to better understand disease pathogenesis. Current approaches require repeated delivery of bacteria and large numbers of animals and vary in treatment start time. A method is needed that can shift the microbiota of predisposed individuals to a healthy microbiota at an early age and sustain this shift through the lifetime of the individual. RESULTS: We tested cross-fostering of pups within 48 h of birth as a means to permanently shift the microbiota from birth. Taxonomical analysis revealed that the nursing mother was the critical factor in determining bacterial colonization, instead of the birth mother. Data was evaluated using bacterial 16S rDNA sequences from fecal pellets and sequencing was performed on an Illumina Miseq using a 251 bp paired-end library. CONCLUSIONS: The results show that cross-fostering is an effective means to induce an early and maintained shift in the commensal microbiota. This will allow for the evaluation of a prolonged microbial shift and its effects on disease pathogenesis. Cross-fostering will also eliminate variation within control models by normalizing the commensal microbiota between different strains of mice.