Study to focus on diet, nutrition and weight loss in cats with cancer

April 02, 2001

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A cat with cancer is losing weight. What's an owner - or even a veterinarian - to do? A study beginning in April at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine seeks to answer that question. Researchers hope they can establish, for the first time, why cats with cancer lose weight during treatment.

Researchers will provide a specially created, nutritionally balanced diet and treatment for 100 cats during the one-year study. They are asking pet owners whose cats have any form of cancer to consider taking part in the study.

There is little solid nutritional information that veterinarians can go by to help counter the common problem of weight loss during cancer treatment, said Nicole Ehrhart, a veterinary surgical oncologist and lead researcher on the project. Cats are living longer than ever before, she said, giving them more opportunity to get cancer - the leading cause of death in pets over the age of 10.

"We know a lot about what happens nutritionally in many other animals and in people, but there is no information available on the body composition of cats that suffer from weight loss associated with cancer and cancer treatments," Ehrhart said. "Cats are obligate carnivores. The way they absorb nutrients, and the way they can potentially lose nutrients, during disease is very different than it is with a lot of other animals."

The evidence suggests that animals losing weight are less able to fight cancer effectively, and pet owners often link their cat's appetite to its overall sense of well being. Owners often give up and choose euthanasia when a cat's weight loss suggests a declining quality of life. "We want to provide every cancer patient with optimal nutrition to maintain an excellent quality of life during treatment," Ehrhart said. Before, during and after treatment, researchers will monitor body weight ratios, the percent of body fat, the percent of lean muscle mass, protein contents and more. They hope to identify what patterns exist in the cats' metabolic rates and eating patterns and link them with specific kinds of treatment, which may include surgery to remove a tumor, radiation and chemotherapy.

Eventually, Ehrhart said, researchers want to help the pet-food industry develop specialized cancer diets that provide the proper nutrition and which cats can - and will - eat.

The study will require researchers to treat cats with a variety of cancers. Pet owners interested in having their cats participate in the study should contact Ehrhart or Kandace Norell at the Small Animal Clinic at the UI Veterinary Teaching Hospital, (217) 333-5300. In addition to receiving free analysis and food during the study, owners whose cats complete all follow-up exams will be eligible for reimbursement of some of their own expenses.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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