Research on a deadly heart disease in cats could help save people with the same heart disease

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    Hugging, petting and snuggling with a pet cat may have heart-healthy benefits for the pet owner.

    “Several studies have shown that actually petting your cat –  probably taking the time to sit down, relax, pet your cat, take that moment of timeout – actually helps to lower people’s blood pressures. That will certainly add to our heart health,” said Leslie Lyons, PhD, Gilbreath-McLorn Endowed Professor of Comparative Medicine at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.

    Lyons can’t say for sure, though, if the petting and hugging by cat owners provide heart-healthy benefits for the cats.

    “For the cats seeking out the experience, it is probably improving the cat’s health, as well. But we don’t have any data to show that we lower a cat’s blood pressure.”

    Lyons’s work inside her Feline Genetics and Comparative Medicine Lab, fondly called the “Lyon’s Den”, is inching closer to improving heart health for cats and humans.

    “We’re looking for the cause of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” explained Lyons. “That’s a type of cardiac disease that’s very common in cats and also common in humans. One of its signs is the thickening of the left ventricle of the heart.”

    Which is especially noteworthy this February, during American Heart Month.

    “Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a very important disease in domestic cats. Also, we know that this disease occurs in humans, too. Here at the University of Missouri, we want to promote “One Health”, and One Health includes helping our cats and having our cats help humans as well. We know this (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) is an important aspect of human health care,” said Lyons. “Our research on the domestic cat and studying the domestic cat’s heart will help us understand human heart health.”

    In humans, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common form of genetic heart disease. It’s estimated that one in every 500 people have the disease and a large percentage of patients are undiagnosed. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy isconsidered a leading cause of sudden cardiac death in younger people.

    The research in the Feline Genetics and Comparative Medicine Lab is providing critical groundwork for overall improvement of cat and human health.

    “The genetics of the cat translates very well to human genetics, because we actually know that the genome arrangement of the cats – the genes on the chromosomes – is actually very, very similar to the organization that we find in humans,” said Lyons. “We’re hoping that important things like gene regulation that we find in the cats, will also be translated to how genes are regulated in humans. And we use that to leverage being able to do translational medicine.”

    The research could lead to new standards for diagnosis and new treatments for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

    “We’re trying to set standards of: here’s all the information that you would need to help prove that a DNA mutation that we find is pathogenic for the actual disease that we’re looking for. So, we happen to pick a bunch of heart disease mutations. We’re working through those now. And we’ll be publishing on what we think about the current disease mutations for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in cats.”

    Lyons said this could have life-saving benefits for people too.

    “Finding the gene, finding the mutation. Sometimes that helps us to find undiagnosed patients, in humans.” She said. “Then certainly treatments that we might use in domestic cats may translate to treatments that we would use in humans, and vice versa.”

    The lab has a website, the 99 Lives Project:

    “You can donate to us under the 99 lives Project at the University of Missouri. We hope that people who love their cats will go to our website and help us to continue doing good research.”