She walks around wearing a t-shirt that says “Ask me about cat poop.” She’ll take your cat’s poop – at least a sample of it – if you offer it up. And she just might be helping pave the way toward finding cures for disease in cats.
Meet the founder of the KittyBiome Project, Dr. Holly Ganz.
I spoke with Ganz, a scientist at UC Davis, in early February and to be quite honest, it has taken me this long to really grasp what she told me about KittyBiome. That might be because this type of research is at the very frontier of medicine.
KittyBiome is a project that intends to map the feline microbiome. But in order to understand what that means, I first had to understand what a microbiome was. And to understand that, I had to learn the meaning of biome, because a microbiome is a miniature version of one.
What is a biome? We all live in one. A biome is a distinct region on our planet, defined by climate and vegetation. I live in a temperate grassland – the Midwest. Others might live in a desert biome, or a rainforest biome.
To switch from the big to the very small: Did you know you have about a gazillion tiny little single-cell organisms living on your body? These microorganisms outnumber the cells in your body by at least 3 to 1. If they were removed, you’d be a couple of pounds lighter.
But that would be a very bad thing. So stop slathering your self in hand sanitizer. It can certainly kill some bad germs but it also can kill good ones. You see, you need these little buggers. They are responsible, in part, for your good health.
Why am I telling you this? Because these critters on and inside you live in microbiomes. And just like the Earth’s biome is broken into different regions including tundras and forests and deserts, your body has different biomes – regions – where these microbes live. There’s a microbiome in your mouth, one in your lungs, and one in your gut. The same goes for your cat.
The National Institutes of Health made this a hot new area of study when it launched the Human Microbiome Project to map every microorganism within us back in 2007. This effort was followed by the European Union in 2008, and by several private ventures in recent years.
Already researchers are finding that what happens in your gut might affect more than just your digestion. Heart disease, for instance. Maybe even anxiety disorders. The implications are huge, and researchers are just getting started.
Then last May, Ganz launched a similar project called KittyBiome. Its mission: to describe every microorganism inside your cat’s gut. Why the gut biome and not, say, the mouth?
“Because cats seem to have a lot of digestive issues,” Ganz told me.
Many cats have inflammatory bowel disease, for instance. Then there is gastritis, megacolon, and chronic diarrhea.
“A lot of cats and kittens with chronic diarrhea are euthanized,” she added, “and if we could come up with something to help counteract this, we could be saving lives.”
That something might be a probiotic, a microbe “pill” that introduces microorganisms to your cat’s gut. The more diverse the ecosystem in there, the healthier it is.
“There’s very little practical application for this yet,” Ganz said. “Because the interactions between microbes and your cat’s health are still very poorly understood. But there are indications that they can and do have an impact.”
They might even tell you why a tortie cat’s temperament is more, well, sassy than a tabby. Or they could tell you whether a “paleo-mouse” diet is better than a couch-potato diet. It’s far too early to tell what type of impact this study might have. Did I mention this kind of science is in its infancy?
“Very much so,” Ganz emphasized. “Remember your high school biology class? Growing a culture in a petri dish? That’s traditional microbiology. The problem is that it misses 90 percent of what’s out there. It’s just not able to identify all the microbes that live on – and in – us.”
That’s why science has turned to genetics. By sequencing a specific part of the bacterial genome, researchers can describe the diversity of bacteria in a sample.
In a preliminary KittyBiome finding, cats fed a raw diet have a much higher diversity of bacteria than those cats not eating raw foods. This is interesting because like the rainforest, healthy guts tend to have high diversity.
I asked a KittyBiome participant, a blogger who goes by Connie and keeps her cats on a raw-food diet, what she thought of this news:
“When my results came in I was fascinated and pleased to see how diverse my raw fed cats microbiome was, especially compared to conventionally fed cats.”
“Diet can play a big role in the microbiome,” Ganz said. “And the more we learn, the more we can understand the association between the microbiome and disease. Early Western medicine looked at urine and feces as diagnostic tools. And now it’s come right back to that.
“Who knows? I can envision a future where waste materials are automatically analyzed by a toilet – or a litterbox – to diagnose health issues.”
KittyBiome, like other microbiome projects focused on humans, is in the information-gathering stage. The more data that’s gathered, the greater the chance of drawing correlations between certain microbes and specific diseases.
And if you want to send in your cat’s poop for analysis, Ganz will take it. KittyBiome is a crowdfunded science project, and for $99, it will sequence your cat’s sample. You can learn more about the project and sign up to participate on the KittyBiome website.
In the short term, one benefit you will get from participating in KittyBiome is that warm feeling that you are contributing to research that aims to improve cat health. You will also get access to a pretty cool interactive site that has tons of information.
Our participant, Connie, agrees. “While this information is academic at this point,” she told me, “I still find it endlessly fascinating, and I hope that my participation helps, even if it is just in some small way, to further feline health research.”
In the long term, we might discover huge benefits.
“By adjusting the community of microbes found inside a cat, someday we may be able to fight chronic inflammation or even gastrointestinal cancer. And we might be doing that by creating a personalized probiotic – a personalized microbe pill – specifically for your cat.”
So what about you? Would you send in a sample of your cat’s waste to KittyBiome? Tell us in comments.