Research suggests that the trillions of microbes that live in a person’s gut can prevent and treat many diseases, and the colony of microbes – known as the microbiome – is affected by a number of factors, including diet. But what about cats? What factors affect the types of microbes in your gut? And how does that relate to your health?
A new study from NC State University aims to shed light on these questions by examining the differences between the gut microbes of cats living in animal shelters and those who have owners.
Kimberly Ange-van Heugten is the project’s lead researcher and Shweta Trivedi is the Co-PI. Both teach associate professors in the Department of Animal Science.
A unique study
Ange-van Heugten has studied the gut microbiome in chimpanzees, gorillas and rhinos, but she is new to studying the microbiome of a companion species. And cat research is unlike any before, she said.
“Not much is known about the microbiome in cats at the moment,” said Ange-van Heugten. “This project will be the largest and longest known collection of microbiomes for cats. In this way, we can learn more about how a number of factors change the domestic cat’s microbiome. “
These factors include a cat’s age, body condition, diarrhea and other disease conditions, gender, genetic relationship, and time.
The research should give scientists a better idea of what the microbiome looks like for large numbers of cats from one area – Wake County – and whether it looks different for healthy and unhealthy cats.
A collaboration between the university and the private sector
The project is a collaboration between NC State and Nom Nom, a subscription-based animal health company that formulates and supplies cutting-edge healthy pet foods and nutritional supplements.
Ryan Honaker, Director of Microbiology at Nom Nom, helps with research design, data analysis, and graduate training, while the company funds the microbiome sequencing analyzes of stool samples and some of PhD student Molly Kittson’s study and travel expenses.
Honaker noted that he and others with Nom Nom are “excited to be working with such a great program to improve understanding of the role of the microbiome in cat health.”
The long-term goal of the study, Ange-van Heugten said, is to find out if there are ways to improve the health of cats by potentially adding prebiotics and probiotics in their diet. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria found in foods, while prebiotics are types of fiber that nourish healthy gut bacteria.
Involving students and others
Kittson, a graduate student studying animal science and nutrition, does much of the work of the study, visiting the Wake County animal shelter three days a week to collect stool samples as well as data on each of the factors she examined. She also sends collection kits for personal cat owners to collect and submit samples.
Kittson plans to collect samples and information from 300 shelter cats and 50 of their own cats by the end of the summer.
Shweta Trivedi said partnering with the Wake County Animal Center in pre-vet veterinary medicine went a long way in obtaining the large numbers of specimens needed for the study. The centre’s chief vet, Sandra Strong, who will soon be entering an Orange County animal shelter, has also provided significant assistance.
Trivedi added, “The ongoing research into pet microbiomes is designed to train PhD students while providing potential hands-on experience for undergraduate students.”
Help Shelter Cats and Owned Cats stay healthy
In the end, said Ange-van Heugten, the research team hopes to learn more about how they can help animal shelters stay healthy or become healthier when they are in the shelter, as this can affect how quickly they are adopted and whether they will stay there in their new homes.
“Sick animals are not always adopted very quickly, and if we can find the weaknesses in the microbiome we may be able to help them address them so cats can go into their homes healthier,” she said.
Kittson agreed, adding that the results should also have implications for cats with owners.
“My long-term goals are to have healthier cats, whether owned or in shelters, and to keep more cats indoors,” she said.