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Gastroenteritis diets for cats: the importance of protein sources

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) causes a functional and structural alteration of the epithelial cells that collectively form the protective barrier in a cat’s immune system. Bacteria, viruses and even some foods act as pathogens by stimulating a strong immune response and fuelling inflammation.

Nutrition and illnesses

Nutritional strategies therefore seek to moderate the immune response in the intestine and reduce antigen stimulation. By replacing the typical dietary proteins with low-antigenicity proteins (novel proteins) or using hydrolysed proteins, we can reduce the risk of hypersensitivity reactions.

Elimination diets help determine whether or not gastroenteritis is caused by an adverse food reaction (AFR). Elimination test diets consist of feeding the dog or cat exclusively with a hypoallergenic veterinary diet (or elimination diet) for 3–4 weeks. If there is no improvement, an AFR can be ruled out. If there is total or partial improvement, the gastroenteritis is probably due to an AFR and a challenge diet should be set up to determine the ingredient causing the problem.

What are novel proteins?

Novel proteins are proteins from ingredients that are not normally found in the patient’s diet. They are selected to minimise exposure to possible allergens. Certain ingredients, such as dairy products, beef, fish (in cats), wheat (in dogs), are considered common causes of adverse food reactions (AFR) and, since 2016, even chicken has also been considered a potential allergen in dogs. Dr. Cecilia Villaverde spoke about this at AMVAC 2016 (the 2016 conference of the Madrid Small Animal Veterinary Association), as well as strategies for diarrhoea in cats and dogs. We recommend reading the summary of her seminars in Lo más comentado en AMVAC 2016 (Most commented at AMVAC 2016).

In fact, the strategy involving the use of novel proteins is based on treating patients with IBD as if they had an adverse food reaction (an intolerance or allergy). 

New diets for the management of feline gastroenteritis are formulated with turkey and pea protein as the source of the novel protein, such as the case of the Advance Gastroenteric Sensitive Feline Formula diet.

Can hydrolysed proteins be used in gastroenteritis diets for cats?

Hydrolysed proteins are definitely a good alternative because they are less antigenic than intact protein. They are small, highly digestible peptides, which facilitates nutrient absorption.

It has been proposed that feeding intact protein to patients with an impaired intestinal barrier may allow larger (more allergenic) protein molecules to cross the lamina propria and therefore contribute to food intolerances. Hydrolysed protein would help mitigate this problem1.

Efficacy of novel and hydrolysed proteins: gastroenteritis diets for cats

Changing the diet by selecting intact proteins from novel sources or hydrolysed proteins is the first intervention to perform in cases of chronic gastroenteritis in cats. Diets using novel and/or hydrolysed proteins are also of great interest in cases of chronic pancreatitis, as this condition is associated with IBD and/or cholangitis and patients usually respond well to the selected protein sources.

Similarly, 50% of cats with idiopathic gastroenteritis respond with improved clinical signs to the elimination diet alone, but the food intolerance or allergy only proved to be genuine in 29% of cases.

Elimination diets are indicated for 4–8 weeks to determine if it is a food allergy or intolerance. If it is, we recommended moving on to a very digestible diet suitable for gastroenteritis in cats, which could contain novel or hydrolysed proteins to reduce the risk of hypersensitivity combined with other nutrients to compensate for any deficiencies due to malabsorption, e.g., vitamin B12.

“It is important to ensure very strict adherence to the elimination diet; otherwise, if cats can access food outside the house, human food or other pet foods, following the hydrolysed diet for weeks at home will be pointless because the results will be useless2.”

In most cases, the diet will improve the cat’s gastroenteritis within a few days.

To sum up, the nutritional strategy for vomiting and diarrhoea in cats involves reducing intestinal antigen stimulation and modulating the local immune response. This can be achieved by selecting new protein sources or using hydrolysed proteins that minimise the cat’s gastrointestinal problems in a few days.

  • Cecilia Villaverde. Opciones dietéticas para pacientes con enfermedad inflamatoria intestinal. [Dietary options for patients with inflammatory bowel disease.] Presented at AMVAC 2016, March 3–5, 2016, Madrid, Spain. Book of seminars and communications from AMVAC 2016, p. 305–309.
  • Lluís Ferrer. Dermatitis atópica felina. [Atopic dermatitis in cats.]. Presentation at Gemfe 2016, February 5-7, 2016, Alicante, Spain.
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