Deadly Diarrheal Disease in Kittens and Kids

The link may help develop treatments for both

Kittens could be the model for understanding an infectious, sometimes deadly, diarrheal disease in both animals and children, according to new research from North Carolina State University.

Diarrheagenic Escherichia coli (DEC) bacteria kills up to 120,000 children under the age of 5 worldwide every year. Atypical enteropathic Escherichia coli (aEPEC) are a form of DEC increasingly associated with diarrheal disease in humans and in kittens.

“We were looking for causes of infectious diarrhea in kittens, which has a high mortality rate, and came across this pathogen,” says Jody Gookin, Professor in Veterinary Scholars Research Education at NC State and one of the researchers.

The researchers performed a genomic analysis of aEPEC isolates from both healthy kittens who were colonized by the bacteria and kittens with lethal infections to try to determine why aEPEC causes illness in some kittens but remains dormant in others.

They then compared the genomic data from both groups of kittens to human aEPEC isolates. “The aEPEC isolated from humans is the same as that found in healthy and sick kittens,” Gookin says. “There weren’t any unique genetic markers that could explain why one group of bacteria causes disease while the other one doesn’t. The only thing we found were behavioral differences between the isolate groups.

“The pathogenic, or disease-causing, isolates had more motility—they were better swimmers. AEPEC bacteria cause disease by attaching to epithelial cells lining the intestine. Those cells then secrete fluids, causing diarrhea. So, the better or farther aEPEC bacteria could swim, the easier it would be to find cells and attach.” The findings point to kittens as a potentially valuable model for further exploration of aEPEC on the molecular level for treatment approaches for both humans and felines.2

Infect Immun . 2021 Feb 16;89(3):e00619-20. doi: 10.1128/IAI.00619-20. Print 2021 Feb 16. NC State.