The Importance of Antioxidants

Antioxidants are seemingly magical nutrients that can repair cell damage that happens in all our bodies over time -- including those of our cats. These nutrients occur naturally, but a body's supply needs an antioxidant boost from food. Common antioxidants include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and certain compounds called carotenoids (like lutein and beta-carotene).

How Antioxidants Work
As cells function normally in the body, they produce damaged molecules called free radicals, which are highly unstable and steal components from other cellular molecules, such as fat, protein, or DNA, thereby spreading the damage. This process, called peroxidation, continues in a chain reaction, and entire cells soon become damaged and die. Peroxidation is important because it helps the body destroy cells that have outlived their usefulness and kills germs and parasites. However, peroxidation, when left unchecked, also destroys or damages healthy cells.

Antioxidants help prevent widespread cellular destruction by donating components to stabilize free radicals. More important, antioxidants return to the surface of the cell to stabilize, rather than damage, other cellular components.

When there are not enough antioxidants to hold peroxidation in check, free radicals begin damaging healthy cells, which can lead to problems. For example, free radical damage to immune cells can lead to an increased risk of infections.

Antioxidants and Immune Response
Recent research has examined the benefits of certain antioxidants on the immune response of dogs and cats. The results of these studies indicated that antioxidants are important in helping dogs and cats maintain a healthy immune system. The research also showed each antioxidant benefits the immune system uniquely so one antioxidant at high levels is not as effective as a group of antioxidants acting together.

Nutritionally supporting the immune system may be especially critical for young animals. For example, the immune system in kittens is still developing at the time it is being challenged with vaccinations and exposure to disease-causing agents. With the addition of antioxidants, a proper kitten diet can aid in the development of a strong immune system to help maintain good health and protect against viruses, bacteria and parasites.

Antioxidants and Aging
Recent research has also examined the effect of aging on immune responses. The findings indicate that as dogs and cats age, immune cell responses may decline. Including antioxidants in the diet can reverse the age-related decrease in immune cell function. However, increased immune cell response is not always proportional to the amount of vitamin E. Although feeding a diet containing 250 IU vitamin E/kg enhanced immune cell response in old cats, adding 500 IU/kg did not achieve the same beneficial effect.

What to Look For
Many pet food labels include information about antioxidants, perhaps indicating that the product was formulated to contain this beneficial nutrient. Here are some common ingredients to look for, and how they may help your cat:

  • Vitamin E Optimizes immune system's T-cell activation
  • Lutein Optimizes immune system's B-cell activation and helps vaccine recognition
  • Beta-carotene Optimizes types of cell present in the blood, increases antibody levels in the blood and helps vaccine recognition

Antioxidants may not prevent all health problems, but there is enough evidence to suggest that they promote good health. Since these nutrients don't change the flavor or texture of food much, advice to consume them should be easy for you and your cat to swallow.