ANSWERING YOUR QUESTIONS ABOUT HELICOBACTER
WHAT IS HELICOBACTER?
HOW DOES HELICOBACTER CAUSE DAMAGE?
Very few organisms can withstand the extreme acidity of the stomach. The tissue of the stomach is protected by a layer of mucus into which bicarbonate is secreted as an acid neutralizer. The integrity of this mucus lining keeps us from being burned by our own stomach acid.
Helicobacter survives by using enzymes to create its own layer of protective bicarbonate. This little safety suit allows the bacteria to burrow into the stomach's mucus layer. Their presence generates inflammation in the stomach tissue. Many patients are colonized by Helicobacter and do not develop symptoms; however, if Helicobacter penetrates deeply enough, it will bind to the mucus secreting cells of the stomach and disrupt their ability to produce normal mucus. Ultimately, the mucus lining is disrupted, stomach acid gains access to the stomach tissue, and burning results. Ulcers are thus formed. Making matters worse, Helicobacter organisms are able to stimulate extra acid secretion by the stomach tissue. More burning and more ulcers result and soon the patient is experiencing pain, nausea and/or vomiting. It is unclear what constitutes a few Helicobacter bacteria sharing the stomach with its host peacefully and numerous Helicobacter organisms disrupting the stomach lining integrity and causing disease. It is possible that without additional stomach disease (such as inflammatory bowel disease) or other factors (stress, anxiety), Helicobacter causes no trouble plus there are many strains and types of Helicobacter and not all of them cause harm. Helicobacter organisms are often found in small numbers in normal stomachs.
Some Helicobacter species are also capable of producing toxins but the role of such toxins in this disease process is not clear.
Helicobacter seems to be one reason why an animal who has been stable with inflammatory bowel disease or some other stomach disease might suddenly get much worse.
DOES HELICOBACTER INFECTION CAUSE CANCER?
In humans, it appears that Helicobacter infection may indeed cause cancer. We know that Helicobacter infection represents a 400% risk increase for the development of stomach cancer for people. Pets, however, get infected with different Helicobacter species and the same association with cancer in these species has not been made.
DOES MY PET HAVE HELICOBACTER OVERGROWTH?
There are many excellent ways to determine if a pet's chronic gastrointestinal problem is being complicated by Helicobacter infection.
small purple "sticks" are Helicobacter organisms
test kit showing negative and positive results for Helicobacter
(Image Courtesy of Dr. Steven Bailey, used with permission)
WHAT IS THE TREATMENT?
Treatment protocols generally consist of two antibiotics and an antacid and are referred to as "Triple Therapy." Confusing matters is that there are many medication combinations referred to as "Triple Therapy" but at least they seem to all be effective as long as at least two antibiotics and a strong antacid are used in combination. The following is a list of medications that have been combined in Triple Therapy protocols in the treatment of Helicobacter:
CAN MY PET INFECT ME?
We do not currently know the answer to this question. We do know that there is at least one Helicobacter species capable of infecting both humans and cats. We know that cat ownership does not seem to represent an increased risk for Helicobacter infection in humans. Transmission of the disease is felt to be through contact with vomit or fecal matter. When cleaning up after your pet, wear gloves if possible and certainly wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
Page last updated: 4/7/2020