Guest post from Student Alex Martin on Kittybiome & Animal Shelters

We are nearing the end of our Kitty Kickstarter to fund research on the microbiome of cats (only three days left).  We have received some requests to learn more about our work with animal shelters. Here is a blog post by Alex Martin, a UC Berkeley junior who is working with us to study shelter cats in Berkeley.

The Berkeley Animal Shelter takes in all cats from within Berkeley city limits. Thus, cats who once varied markedly with regards to diet and home environment come to live under a fairly uniform set of conditions. It typically houses between fifteen and forty cats, but has held as many as seventy during the peak of breeding season. Recently we have begun collecting samples from cats at the Berkeley shelter in order to better understand their gut microbiomes.

A major dichotomy in the shelter cat population is the one separating house cats from feral cats. Both are considered domestic cats, members of the species Felis catus. If a kitten during its first few months of life is not exposed to humans, it develops behaviors to facilitate surviving in the wild, and grows up to become a feral cat. Some see feral cats as a nuisance, but the animals also tend to live difficult lives, enduring food shortages and a lack of medical care. Thus, a relatively new effort referred to as “trap-neuter-return”(TNR) aims to spay and neuter feral cats to slowly and humanely diminish the size and number of feral cat colonies. Differences in the gut microbiomes of feral cats versus their tamer counterparts is perhaps expected, as the two groups have vastly different diets and levels of environmental exposure. However, these differences have yet to be characterized.
In addition to the differences between feral and house cats, a small but important FIV(Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) population can potentially serve as an interesting point of comparison. Much like Human Immunodeficiency Virus, FIV attacks the immune system of infected individuals, making them markedly more susceptible to other infections. We think that this virus will affect the microbiome of FIV-positive cats in measurable ways. By identifying any differences, we will gain a better understanding of FIV as a whole and will hopefully be better positioned to one day develop more effective methods of treatment.

Geronimo is one Berkeley shelter cat whose gut microbiome will be analyzed. He was picked up as a stray just a few blocks from the shelter, and is three years old. Geronimo is exceptionally friendly, and loves playing with his wand toy and hiding in his cat tree to nap. He gets along well with other cats and was even introduced to a rabbit without incident. After spending about two weeks in the shelter, Geronimo was adopted into a loving home.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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