What Is Your Cat’s Gut Microbiome and Why Is It Important?
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You may have noticed that the term ‘gut microbiome’ seems to be a bit of a buzzword at the moment. The fact is that it deserves all the hype because the gut microbiome is incredibly important for humans and cats alike. The power of this huge ecosystem has been known for some time, but it’s only now that we are starting to understand the true makeup, and there’s probably plenty more to come. For now, we know that the gut microbiome can have a really profound effect on health. Of course, if something goes wrong we would expect to see digestive upsets like soft cat poo or bouts of diarrhoea, but the truth is that the gut microbiome is much more powerful than this.
What is the gut microbiome?
The microbiome is defined as “the combined genetic material of the microorganisms in a particular environment.” In the case of the gut microbiome, these are the millions of tiny organisms that live in your cat’s intestines. They’re mainly bacteria, but there are also things like protozoa and other weird and wonderful things. Other parts of the body have microbiomes too, such as the skin and mouth, which are also covered in bacteria and other organisms. But the gut microbiome is the real star.
Different foods feed different types of organisms, so diet has a big part to play in the makeup of the cat microbiome. And because cats have to have meat in their diet, their microbiome tends to be different than those of dogs and people.
Why is the cat gut microbiome so important?
Many of the bacteria and other organisms in the microbiome, and especially the combination of the many different types, are really great for your cat. Here are some of the important jobs they do:
They break down some foods that your cat’s body can’t.
They nourish gut cells and keep the lining of the gut healthy and strong.
They keep the ‘bad’ bacteria at bay.
They support the immune system and keep it healthy.
They help with the production of certain vitamins.
A balanced microbiome can even help keep your cat slim. And there is a strong link between the gut and the brain, so a healthy gut microbiome helps keep your cat happy and healthy upstairs, too!
Like many things, we only notice how brilliant something is when it goes wrong! In the case of the gut microbiome, this is called dysbiosis, or an imbalance between all those different types of bacteria. Organisms that are harmless in smaller numbers are normally kept in check by “healthy” bacteria, but if they start to win the fight for control, the perfectly balanced ecosystem starts to go wrong. This might be caused by things like a change in diet, use of antibiotics, or chronic stress.
As you can imagine, when dysbiosis occurs, your cat will lose all the great benefits of a healthy microbiome. This can result in vitamin deficiency, gut damage and inflammation, infections, adverse food reactions, and a weakened immune system. Your cat may not digest their food properly, so they might also lose weight.
What can you do to keep your cat’s microbiome balanced?
Now you understand the benefits of your cat’s gut microbiome and the important role diet plays, talk to your vet about a microbiome-friendly cat food. This will support their microbiome and give it all the nutrients it needs to maximise those benefits.
Try not to use antibiotics unless it’s essential. We live in a world where resistance to antibiotics is a real danger. We know they can devastate the good bacteria, so try to listen to your vet and avoid antibiotics if you can.
Talk to your vet about your cat’s home life. Cats are subtle creatures, prone to stress, especially around other cats. It may be that you can make some simple changes at home to keep things more amenable to a happy life and a healthy gut.
If your cat does have dysbiosis for some reason, all is not lost. Your vet may offer a specific food to help nourish the good bacteria. They may also recommend probiotics, which are supplements that contain huge numbers of certain strains of beneficial bacteria to promote a healthy microbiome.
As always, if you have any concerns, just ask your vet. We’re always happy to help and would much rather see you and your cat sooner rather than later.
Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA