Cats Are What They Eat

Published Jan. 16, 2013

Nutrigenomics Research Yields New Nutritional Therapies for Pets

By Jennifer Coates, DVM

New research is proving the truth behind the old adage, “You are what you eat.”

At its most basic level, the idea that people and pets are healthier when they eat nutritious food is fairly self-evident. Proof abounds in our own lives. When our diets are centered around whole grains, lean protein sources, and lots of fruits and vegetables we feel better and have fewer health concerns. Scientists are starting to understand some of the complex reasons why this is true and apply that knowledge to the prevention and treatment of diseases in animals and people.

VIEW SLIDESHOW: How to Choose the Best Cat Food

Nutrigenomics (shorthand for nutritional genomics) is the study of how nutrients found in food influence gene expression. A gene is a portion of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that codes for a particular protein. Proteins have been called the “stuff of life.” A few of their important roles include:

  • Enzymes that control the rate of the body’s chemical reactions
  • Transporters that carry molecules around the body
  • Hormones that regulate most processes within the body

By upregulating some genes and downregulating others, the body can alter the levels of the various proteins that are being produced at any given time. This process can be either beneficial or detrimental to our well-being. For example, if all the genes that create inflammation are turned up high and remain that way, problems related to excess inflammation will follow.

Research is proving that the foods we and our pets eat influence which of our genes are most active at any given time, both in sickness and in health. Dr. Lynda Melendez, Medical Director in the Clinical Studies and Claims Department at Hill's Pet Nutrition, explains further:

Using special techniques, the scientists at Hills Pet Nutrition have not only pinpointed which genes are being expressed in a specific disease process, but they have found out which ingredients and nutrients change that expression for the better. They then use that information to formulate special foods containing the nutrients that modify an individual's gene expression to be more healthy (i.e., turn down the genes that cause inflammation) and help improve the quality of life of pets who consume that food.

Can Nutrigenomics Help Overweight Pets?

Scientists are also using nutrigenomics to combat the ongoing epidemic of obesity in pets. In a tightly controlled environment, most individuals will lose weight if they eat appropriate portions of a calorie-restricted diet. However, the complexities of real life often don’t allow owners to rigorously control the conditions within their homes. Scientists at some pet food manufacturers, such as Hill’s Pet Nutrition, have used nutrigenomics to develop new therapeutic weight loss diets.

Dr. Melendez explains how the new diet developed at Hill’s (named Metabolic Advanced Weight Solution and only available with a veterinarian's prescription) works in real life situations:

The scientists at Hills Pet Nutrition were able to determine the difference in gene expression between pets who are obese and those who are lean, primarily related to differences in their metabolism. They then found a synergistic combination of ingredients that help change the unhealthy metabolism of the obese pet to work more like the healthy metabolism of lean animals by changing the gene expression of the obese pets to look more like the gene expression of a lean pet.

Rapid advances in nutrigenomics are helping veterinary nutritionists select pet food ingredients that affect positive changes in a pet’s body chemistry, resulting in better health. It is, however, vital that you always ask your veterinarian about what the best diet is for your pet. He or she is an excellent source of information about what could benefit your pet's health and well-being the most, including new scientific discoveries and therapeutic options.


An introduction to nutrigenomics developments and trends. Siân B. Astley. Genes Nutr. 2007 October; 2(1): 11–13. 

Nutrigenomics and Beyond: Informing the Future - Workshop Summary (2007) Food and Nutrition Board

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Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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