I've just come back from a veterinary conference in Prague which was a fascinating and useful learning experience, with scientists and vets gathering from all over Europe, North America and Asia to share knowledge.
Most of the lectures were at the veterinary-science level, and the details might be boring and difficult to follow for most readers. But I did learn some more general lessons that will be of direct interest to pet owners.
The event was organised by the Purina Institute, which is the voice representing the global Purina R&D team of more than 500 scientists and pet care experts, working across a network of eight research and development facilities in the USA, Europe, South America, Australia and Singapore. The mission of the Institute is to advance the science of pet nutrition, with the overall aim of improving pet health and welfare by learning more about how best to feed them. Regular international seminars are held to allow the Purina Institute to share the latest nuggets of useful science with scientists and vets who are keen to learn more.
Over past decades, there have been many examples of nutritional advances that have been discovered by Purina scientists: these include the impact of nutrition on brain health, and on gastrointestinal disorders, as well as a better understanding of how to achieve optimal body weight in pets.
Studies have shown that 83% of pet owners completely trust their veterinarian to provide helpful information about the food they feed their pet, but less than 1 in 4 (22%) vets actually start the conversation about pet nutrition. The Purina Institute aims to provide vets with top quality science-based information about pet nutrition, giving them the knowledge and confidence to initiate conversations about feeding their pets. We all know that pets are what they eat, just like ourselves, yet it's all too easy to forget this when it comes to the daily task of feeding them. It would benefit pet health and welfare significantly if we all - vets and pet owners - gave more attention to this part of our pets' lives.
All of the lectures at meetings held by the Purina Institute are focussed on nutrition in some way, but it's far broader than just talking about what to give pets to eat.
The first topic at this week's seminar was an unusual one for a vet conference: new discoveries about the science of humans being allergic to cats. Cat allergy affects up to 20% of the adult population and it's a major reason for people not keeping cats, and for cats having to be rehomed. The allergy in humans is caused by sensitivity to the major cat allergen (Fel d1), which is secreted through the cat's saliva, and spread across its body by grooming, then released into the home on skin cells (dander) and hair. People who are allergic to cats find it impossible to be near them, which is the source of a great deal of frustration for many people who would love to share their lives with a cat.
The science presented this week offers an exciting new way of solving this problem. The new research has demonstrated that when cats are fed a kibble coated with an egg product ingredient containing an antibody to this Fel d1 allergen, when they chew, the allergen in the saliva is neutralised inside the cat's mouth. This occurs before it can be spread around the cat's body by grooming and ultimately into the environment. Studies have shown not only a significant drop in the amount of active allergen in the saliva, but also on average a 47% reduction in active Fel d1 on their hair starting after the 3rd week of feeding. This holds the possibility that people who are allergic to cats can live with them. The approach is safe for the cat, does not interfere with their natural production of Fel d1 or impact their overall physiology. The allergen is simply neutralised. The antibody to the Fel d1 allergen is produced in eggs by exposing hens to Fel d1. It has been known for years that eggs can be used like this to produce antibodies that can be eaten: the same principle has been used as a way of creating oral antibodies to some gastrointestinal viruses, and to produce oral antidotes to some types of snake poisons. This is a new scientific finding that's just been announced, and it has not yet translated into a product on the market place. However it's such a promising finding and Purina expects to share product news within a year.
This is not only good news for allergic humans who will now be able to keep cats: it's also great news for the many thousands of cats who are in rescue centres, waiting for good homes. It's hoped that by the end of next year, thousands of new homes will, at last, be able to take in cats as pets because of this new way of tackling cat allergy.
Other lectures in Prague included studies that showed how normal cat behaviour can be utilised to encourage obese cats to lose weight (e.g. using toys that encourage cats to work for their dinner), the science behind choosing the best nutrition for cats with kidney disease, and information about the impact of diet on some types of heart disease.
If you want to know more about pet nutrition, do ask your vet. We may not always start the conversation, but we do like talking about it.