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October 29, 2019 – Morris Animal Foundation has long supported innovative research to find strategies to address feline upper respiratory infections (URI), a major cause of euthanasia in shelter cats. Now, a newly funded Foundation study is taking a novel approach – learning more about how the microbiome in the respiratory tract differs between cats with and without upper respiratory infections.

Drs. Brianna Beechler and Rhea Hanselmann are leading microbiome researchers at the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University and Western University of Health Sciences, respectively. Their team focuses on how the microbiome influences disease susceptibility and resistance. Both have a veterinary clinical background and know how devastating upper respiratory infections can be in cats. They began to wonder why some cats are resistant to infection, even if they’re sharing a home with an infected cat. If they knew the answer to this question, could it lead to a new way to address URI in cats?

“We don’t know why some animals can have a pathogen and exhibit clinical signs and others have the same pathogen and don’t,” said Dr. Beechler. “We say it’s related to stress, but what does that really mean? We know there’s a link in African buffalo between their upper respiratory microbiome and whether they get other diseases or not. We thought the same thing might be happening in cats.”

The microbiome is the sum of all the bacteria that live in and on an organism. These bacteria can play an important role in keeping unwanted pathogens, such as viruses, from getting a foothold and causing disease.

For their study, the team is recruiting cats from households that have at least one cat with chronic upper respiratory infection signs and at least one cat that doesn’t. They’re collecting bacterial samples from the upper respiratory tract of these cats as well as other health data from owners.

By studying the differences between the samples, the team wants to see if they can find different bacteria in cats that have clinical upper respiratory infections compared to those that don’t; or if the same bacteria are present but are doing different things. In the long-term, this could tell us whether there are bacteria that might make a cat more susceptible to infection or make them more resistant. Once they establish this profile, the information could be used to identify at-risk individuals and monitor disease status. Cats might even be a model for upper respiratory diseases in other species.

The team also is looking at the microbiome using fecal samples from the cats. The gut might seem an odd place to collect samples for a study on the upper respiratory tract, but there’s compelling evidence in children that bacteria in the gut can influence viral infections in the respiratory tract.

“If we can find specific bacteria, bacterial groups or functional groups that differ between the two populations of cats, we can get an idea of what to target and what to think about in future studies,” said Dr. Beechler.

The study’s findings will fill an important knowledge gap not only in what the microbiome of cats with URIs looks like, but also contribute knowledge on what constitutes a normal upper respiratory microbiome.

Morris Animal Foundation has invested  $1.5 million in upper respiratory infection research in just the last 15 years to address this serious welfare problem in cats. Many of these studies have looked at new ways to minimize the disease in shelters. Some solutions already being implemented include the design of roomier and more compartmentalized cages that reduce stress and the incidence of URI in shelters, as well as novel ways to treat cats that already have the disease. Our work has helped thousands of cats have healthier lives and find forever homes. But there’s still more work to do.

Learn more about our health studies and how you can help cats live better, healthier lives.