A team of Nestlé Purina PetCare scientists announced results of a study this past week showing a new approach to managing cat allergens so people can be around them without sneezing and experiencing other symptoms.
Purina, maker of Fancy Feast, Friskies and other cat food brands, has 500 scientists investigating how nutrition affects pet health, with more than half of them based in St. Louis.
Their research spans everything from gut microbes to cognition to allergens. When it comes to the last topic, everyone seems to have a hypothesis about what causes allergic reactions to cats.
“There are so many myths out there,” said Lizzie Parker, group director of the Purina Institute. For example, that cat hair and dander cause allergies and hypoallergenic cats exist. Debunking these myths by presenting scientific information to the public was a key motivator in developing the Purina Institute, which launched in May 2018.
“Being able to have a new voice or a brand that can talk around the science is timely,” said Parker. “There’s so much now on Dr. Google … get a hairless cat, go and spend $10,000 on a hypoallergenic cat. It’s helping get facts out there.”
One in five people experiences sensitivities to cats. While some of these individuals abstain from interacting with cats, others go to great lengths to keep their pets.
“When we were talking to cat owners, some of the things they were doing were just extraordinary,” Parker said. People take medications, engage in rigorous cleaning routines, swap out carpet for hardwood floors, and groom their cats extensively. “They were lint rolling their cats,” said Ebenezer Satyaraj, director of molecular nutrition at Purina.
Satyaraj leads Purina’s research program on cat allergens, which started 10 years ago. This work focuses on the most common cat allergen, a protein called Fel d 1 that is responsible for 95 percent of human sensitivities to cats. All cats produce this protein in their saliva and sebaceous glands, meaning there are no hypoallergenic cats. When cats groom, they smear the protein over their coats. Cat hair doesn’t cause allergies, but rather serves as a vehicle to transport the allergen.
The Fel d 1 protein is light and sticky, allowing it to disperse easily and adhere to furniture, carpets and clothing. It can also persist for up to five months in the environment, making it difficult to find an effective approach for treating cat allergies.
Allergy shots and other medications have helped individuals who experience sensitivities to cats, but Purina researchers are taking a new approach —addressing allergies from the cat’s perspective. By manipulating a cat’s diet, Purina scientists aim to neutralize Fel d 1 after it’s been produced to prevent it from triggering symptoms in humans. “We don’t want to stop the production,” Parker said. “That’s really, really key, because we don’t know what it does.”
The diet they created consists of cat food supplemented with an antibody found in egg yolks. This antibody binds to the Fel d 1 protein and can render it inactive. Although this approach doesn’t completely neutralize Fel d 1, it can reduce active levels of the protein in cat hair.
“The beauty of the approach is … you’re not changing or adding any additional chores,” said Satyaraj.
Their next step is evaluating whether this treatment diet can reduce symptoms in humans who have cat allergies.
Purina’s investment in research began more than 100 years ago to develop knowledge about pet nutrition and welfare. Some of this work is conducted in St. Louis, but the company also collaborates with the global network of 5,000 Nestlé scientists and outside institutions, including Washington University.
During this time, Purina has invested in various long-term projects, including the cat allergen work. “This idea, in other places, would have been shot down awhile back,” said Satyaraj. “Here we are 10 years down the road, now ready to talk about the science.”
These research projects don’t always benefit the commercial aspect of Purina, company representatives said. “We did a 14-year study to demonstrate if you keep (dogs) lean you can actually extend their life,” said Parker. “Now what did that do from a commercial point of view? Nothing because actually it meant you reduced the feeding amount.”