Helicobacter is a class of bacteria commonly found in the gastrointestinal tracts of dogs, cats and people. It only becomes problematic when it causes clinical disease.
How Helicobacter Infection Affects Cats
Any breed, gender or age of cat can be infected by this microorganism. Unsanitary environmental conditions and overcrowding, as are present in some shelters and catteries, can predispose cats to develop clinical disease. However, most cats infected by Helicobacter never show signs of illness. In those cases where Helicobacter infection does cause clinical signs in cats, they involve inflammation and glandular deterioration of tissues lining the stomach and upper intestinal tract. Affected animals develop varying degrees of nausea, chronic or sporadic vomiting, intermittent inappetence, unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain, weakness and/or occasional diarrhea that may contain fresh or digested blood. They typically become dehydrated as well.
Causes of Feline Helicobacter Infection
Helicobacter microorganisms are ubiquitous in the environment, and it is not clear why certain cats develop clinical disease and others do not. Certainly the health of a given animal's immune system plays an important role. Helicobacter can accompany and exacerbate other gastric and intestinal disorders. This organism is unique in its ability to survive and thrive in the harsh and rather inhospitable acidic environment of the cat's stomach. Once the bacteria are introduced into the digestive tract, they burrow into the sensitive stomach lining, where in some cats they cause gastric symptoms to occur. The exact mode of transmission and infection is not clear, but oral-oral and fecal-oral routes are suspected along with possible water-borne and fly-vector routes.
A number of different Helicobacter species can cause infection in cats, dogs and people. Some of the known bacterial species in cats are Helicobacter pylori, Helicobacter felis and Helicobacter heilmannii. The H. pylori spp. is known to cause gastritis and ulcers in people as well as in cats.
Preventing Helicobacter Infection
Because the cause-and-effect relationship between Helicobacter and symptomatic gastric disease is not well understood, prevention is not particularly realistic. General good dietary and overall health practices can boost immune system strength. Young and immunocompromised individuals should be kept away from areas of poor sanitation or hygiene to reduce their risk of infection.
Helicobacter infection is not easy to diagnose. Bacterial cultures can be useful, but some species of Helicobacter are difficult to culture. In most cases, if a cat is displaying clinical signs consistent with Helicobacter infection, without any other easily explainable cause, treatment will be recommended without a definitive diagnosis. If a diagnosis is necessary before treatment can begin, examining and sampling the stomach and intestinal lining surgically or through endoscopy are often a useful diagnostic approach.
The nonspecific gastric symptoms caused by Helicobacter are frustrating for owners of affected cats. Fortunately, a number of diagnostic tests are available, and the infection usually can be treated successfully with a combination of antibiotics and antisecretory drugs. One of the most important reasons for concern about this infection is the potential for transmission from companion animals to humans, or vice versa. It is thought that human to cat transmission of Helicobacter pylori is likely.
There are combination medical treatments that can be used to control Helicobacter infections in companion cats. However, completely eliminating the bacterial population is not always possible. Many cats treated medically will test positive for the organism in as little as six weeks after the treatments were completed. Fortunately, gastritis symptoms can be fairly well controlled through prescription medications.