By Dr. Becker
Animals, including humans, host huge populations of bacteria in the gut, and now a group of biologists are on a mission to discover the microbiome that inhabits the digestive system of cats. The microbiome is the bacteria and other microorganisms that animals carry on their bodies.
The University of California, Davis-based researchers used Kickstarter to fund their citizen-science project, which they've dubbed "kittybiome." The Kickstarter project reached its minimum funding goal of $23,183 in just 3 days thanks to 229 backers.1 The researchers went the crowdfunding route after their grant applications to science agencies were denied.
This isn't surprising, since as UC-Davis research scientist Holly Ganz, points out,
"The money for studying companion animals is devoted to pressing things, like cancer."
First-Ever Detailed Look at the Feline Microbiome
Very little is known about the microbiome of pet cats, however, we do know that just like other animals and humans, the microbes living in and on cats play a crucially important role in the health of the digestive and immune systems.
Since kittybiome is the first-ever effort to evaluate the feline microbiome in any detail, for this initial study the researchers will simply collect samples from feral, domestic, and shelter cats, and report their findings.
We know that gut bacteria in humans differs from one population to the next. As the kittybiome team builds a database of cat microbiomes, the researchers will be able to analyze how different diets and environments affect cats, and whether the microbiome changes as they age.
How Do Diet and Environment Affect Your Cat's Microbiome?
The goal of the project is to learn more about how microbiomes differ from cat to cat, whether those differences can tell us anything about cat behavior or biology, and how the microbiome interacts with and affects the health of kitties.
According to the project's Kickstarter page, the researchers hope to use the microbiome data to answer questions such as:2
- How do grumpy cats compare to happy cats?
- How do athletic cats compare to couch potato cats?
- Does it matter if you feed your cat a paleo-mouse diet?
- How do indoor and outdoor cats compare?
- What happens when a cat takes antibiotics?
- How does the microbiome change during the life of a cat?
Project Backers Can Send in Their Own Kitty's Poop for Analysis
Since this is a "citizen science" project, kittybiome backers can include their own cats in the study by collecting and mailing in a small sample of kitty poop.
For $99, any cat owner can send in a fresh poo sample plucked from the litter box along with a short questionnaire about their kitty's health and diet.
After the team performs an analysis using state-of-the-art DNA sequencing technologies, the owner receives information online about the different types and concentration of bacteria discovered in their cat's poop, plus an easy-to-understand guide that explains what the results mean.
Pet owners can even compare their kitty's microbiome to those of other cats, including a few celebricats, including Lil Bub. "We want to make it interesting to people," says Ganz.
Kickstarter backers without cats or who don't want to include their own pet in the study can opt instead to sponsor a wildcat or a shelter cat.
Kittybiome Recently Teamed Up with Cat Tracker, Another Citizen Science Project
Shortly after its launch in May 2015, kittybiome teamed up with Cat Tracker, another citizen science research project designed to learn more about the activities of housecats that spend time outdoors.
Kittybiome participants with cats who go outside are encouraged to sign up with Cat Tracker. They can then fit their kitty with a tiny GPS harness and see what he’s up to when he’s on the prowl.
The Cat Tracker researchers are hoping to get 1,000+ cats to participate in the project, which would facilitate the collection of vast amounts of information on cat behavior. The project was prompted by a highly controversial study published in 2012 that suggested outdoor cats kill enormous numbers of birds and small prey animals each year.
The numbers are far from accurate according to experts, and have led to bitter debates between cat and bird advocates. What is not in dispute is that the behavior of free roaming housecats has consequences far beyond the significant risk to the cats themselves.
The benefit to the kittybiome researchers of having cats in both studies is they will get the opportunity to evaluate how outdoor activities affect the microbiome of cats.