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Thiamine Deficiency in Cats

Thiamine Deficiency in Cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Recently, a pet food manufacturer recalled a single lot of canned cat food for low levels of thiamine after the FDA received a consumer complaint and tested the product. Recalls by two other pet food manufacturers for the same problem occurred in 2009 and 2011.
  • Thiamine supports healthy functioning of nerves, muscle cells and the brain in animals, including humans. A thiamine shortage means the body can’t efficiently convert carbohydrates into energy. Thiamine also helps convert dietary fats into energy.
  • Thiamine deficiency in cats shows itself within a week or two of beginning a thiamine-depleted diet, usually starts with GI symptoms and left untreated, progresses to neurological impairment and ultimately, death.
  • The thiamine content of food can be destroyed in a number of ways, including through the high temperatures and other rigors of pet food processing. Pet food manufacturers supplement formulas with thiamine to compensate for the loss, but it’s not a perfect science.

By Dr. Becker

Recently Nestlé Purina PetCare recalled one lot of canned cat food in response to a consumer complaint to the FDA. When the FDA tested the product, it found a low level of vitamin B1 (thiamine).

The product, Purina Veterinary Diets OM Overweight Management canned cat food, was distributed to vet clinics throughout the U.S. and Canada between June 2011 and May 2012. The cans have a “Best By” date of June 2012 and the production code is 11721159. This product is sold only by veterinarians and not in retail stores.

According to Purina:

“Cats fed this affected lot exclusively for several weeks may be at risk for developing a thiamine deficiency. Thiamine is essential for cats. Symptoms of deficiency displayed by an affected cat can be gastrointestinal or neurological in nature. Early signs of thiamine deficiency may include decreased appetite, salivation, vomiting and weight loss. In advanced cases, neurological signs can develop, which may include ventriflexion (bending towards the floor) of the neck, wobbly walking, falling, circling and seizures. Contact your veterinarian immediately if your cat is displaying any of these signs. If treated promptly, thiamine deficiency is typically reversible.”

This is another example of why balanced nutrition for pets is so important. In a matter of weeks, a cat who isn’t getting enough thiamine in her diet can become very sick. And left untreated, a thiamine deficiency can be fatal.

It’s also a good argument against feeding your pet the same food every day for months or years. If that single brand of food you buy isn’t balanced nutritionally, it can set the stage for dietary deficiencies and related health problems. Feeding just one type of food to your pet also sets the stage for food sensitivities and allergies.

How Pet Food Gets Depleted of Thiamine

Thiamine is a water soluble B complex vitamin. It isn’t stored by the body, so it’s easy to develop a deficiency if there isn’t enough of this nutrient in the daily diet.

Thiamine helps support healthy functioning of nerves, muscle cells and the brain in animals, including humans. A thiamine shortage means the body can’t efficiently convert carbohydrates into energy. Thiamine also helps convert dietary fats into energy.

Thiamine naturally present in food can be destroyed in a number of ways including during prolonged storage, by exposure to high levels of glutamate found in vegetable protein, and by high temperatures and other conditions of pet food processing.

Cat food manufacturers supplement their formulas to compensate for the loss of thiamine during processing, however, it isn’t a perfect science as evidenced by the recent Nestlé Purina recall and past recalls by other cat food manufacturers (most recently, Wellness in 20111 and Diamond in 20092).

A thiamine deficiency can also develop in other ways, including:

  • Feeding your cat large amounts of raw fish containing the enzyme thiaminase. Thiaminase destroys thiamine. Cooking destroys thiaminase.
  • Feeding pet food products containing sulphur dioxide (sulfites), a preservative. Sulfites inactivate thiamine.

Symptoms of Thiamine Deficiency in Kitties

The initial signs of a deficiency usually appear with a week or two after a kitty starts eating a thiamine depleted diet. These signs can include:

  • Excessive salivation
  • Decreased appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Ataxia (loss of coordination)

If a cat with a thiamine deficiency doesn’t receive prompt treatment, the condition will progress to a critical stage featuring severe neurological dysfunction, including convulsions and ventroflexion (a bending downward of the neck). This is followed by stiffness in all the limbs and sometimes heart irregularities. Left untreated, the final stage of the disease ends in death.

Diagnosis of a thiamine deficiency is based primarily on symptoms and the cat’s history. The vet may also do tests to rule out other problems, including a complete blood count, biochemical profile, urinalysis and x-rays.

Prompt Treatment Brings Full Recovery in Most Cases

Treatment of a thiamine deficiency in cats involves feeding a balanced, species-appropriate diet, and limiting or eliminating raw fish. Despite the fact that many cats seem to be crazy for fish, it’s actually not – and never was – a part of their natural diet. If you want to feed your kitty fish occasionally, I recommend sardines packed in water.

Often thiamine is given by injection for several days or even weeks to cats with a deficiency.

Since natural food sources of thiamine aren’t, for the most part, species-appropriate food for felines, I also recommend talking to your holistic vet about supplementing thiamine in your cat’s diet, depending on what diet you feed. If you’re feeding a variety of high quality, human grade commercial cat foods, you may not need to add more thiamine. If you’re feeding a lesser quality brand or are preparing your pet’s meals at home, a vitamin B1 supplement may be advisable.


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