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Every person carries trillions of bacteria in his or her gut. But what about humans' closest companions?
Four enterprising biologists plan to find out. Their citizen-science project will examine the microbiome of cats' digestive systems, in both house pets and wild animals. The microbiome is the bacteria and other microorganisms we carry on our bodies.
"Like us, animals are enveloped in a cloud of microbes," said Holly Ganz, a research scientist at the University of California at Davis who studies the microbiome of cats and is part of the Kickstarter-funded project. "We're really interested in them because they influence health and behavior."
Just as in humans, the microbes inside cats play an active role in their health, helping digestion, influencing their immune system and, perhaps, swaying the development of obesity, diabetes and irritable bowel disease, Ganz said. "The gut microbiome is really important, and it's also very diverse and complicated," she told LiveScience. [Images: See the World from a Cat's Eyes]
One of the few studies of feline microbiomes found different gut bacteria among kittens on high-protein and moderate-protein, moderate-carbohydrate diets. Cats are healthiest when they're on high-protein diets, but many commercial cat-food brands skew toward a more carb-heavy ratio. The study was published online Aug. 31, 2012, in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Because this is the first project to look at the feline microbiome in such detail, Ganz and her fellow cat-loving researchers simply plan to report what they find in their kitties. Even so, the observations could have practical applications for pet owners, because the team will be comparing feral, domestic and shelter cats.
The idea of a kitty Kickstarter started as a joke, but the idea took off because it seemed like the perfect citizen-science project, according to Jonathan Eisen, a UC Davis professor on the science team.
Crowdfunding also solves the problem of finding funding, because the researchers' grant applications to science agencies have been turned down so far, Ganz said. "The money for studying companion animals is devoted to pressing things, like cancer," she said.
The "Kittybiome" Kickstarter has already hit its minimum funding goal, but there are still open spots if you're interested in seeing what lives inside your cat's intestines. For a pet to participate, curious humans must collect a small, fresh poop sample from their cat companions and send it in to the scientists for analysis. In return, people will receive information about the different species in their cat's poop.
The researchers intend to let Kickstarter backers compare results by location, so a cat owner in California could look at results from Canada and South Africa. They've signed up celebrity cat Lil Bub, and hope Grumpy Cat will send in some poop, too.