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Monday, June 9, 2014

Catch-up Blog #5: Obese Cats

Here's an email from Abigail:

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ll come right out and say it: I have an obese cat. He’s 7 years old and I adopted him about 8 months ago. In that time he’s gone from a hefty 16 pounds to a chunky 18.5 pounds. I don’t have any information on weight changes before I got him.  I feed him half a cup of ‘weight management’ dry food and 3 oz of wet food per day, and I don’t think I can reduce his food any further without leaving him hungry. He gets a catnip toy every morning which he goes crazy over, there’s another cat which keeps him on his toes, and I play with him daily with a laser pointer. I feel like I’m doing everything I can with his diet and exercise to get his weight down, but still nothing is working. Am I doing something wrong, or is there more that I can do? I’m starting to think it might be a medical problem. What sort of issues besides too much food and lack of exercise can cause obesity in cats?

As with all American pets, obesity is a growing problem with cats.  While many people think that their cats are just "fluffy", it's a serious health problem.  For example, obese cats are six times more likely to develop diabetes, and this is a notoriously difficult disease to regulate in this species.  At the same time, it can be difficult for some cats to lose weight because most of them have a relatively sedentary lifestyle.  There really are very few medical problems that would lead to obesity in cats, so most of the problem is too many calories and too little exercise.  

To help Abigail's cat, as well as everyone who has an overweight cat, here are some hints on how to achieve normal weight.
  • Feed a specific measured amount of food to your cat daily.  If you are having difficulty achieving adequate weight loss, talk to your vet about diets specifically designed to do so.  Over-the-counter "weight management" foods are for maintaining lower weight, not losing it.  Abigail is correct that you can only reduce the amount so far before you're withholding nutrients as well as calories.
  • DO NOT "free feed" if you have multiple cats.  This is one of the most contentious points with my clients.  Each cat needs to be fed separately and a measured amount specific to that cat's needs.  If one cat eats faster than the others and then goes to a bowl other than his/her own, the cats need to be placed in separate rooms to eat.  "But I can't do that.  It's too hard.  It takes too much time."  I call 100% bull on that.  I have three cats of my own and each is fed in a separate room.  It takes an extra minute or so to do, and once the cats are done eating they are allowed back into the rest of the house.
  • Switch to a completely canned diet.  Studies have shown that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet is better for weight maintenance (a so-called "Catkins" diet).  Canned foods meet this requirement better than dry, though it is messier, more expensive, and some cats used to dry won't eat canned.
  • Force exercise.  Laser pointers are a good option.  But get more creative.  Instead of putting a bowl of food in front of the cat, make mealtime into an active game.  Take pieces of dry kibble and with the cat watching throw pieces to an opposite side of the room.  When the cat runs and eats those pieces throw some into a different area of the room.  This forces the cat to move towards the different areas in order to eat.  You get exercise while enforcing restricted food amounts.
  • An alternate to the above....At mealtime put the cat in a closed room.  Hide small piles of food around the room so the cat has to walk around and hunt to find them.  This mimics foraging behavior like cats do in the wild.  And even when the food is gone the cat will likely keep searching (thus exercising).  Each day put the food in different locations so the cat doesn't know to always go to a specific area.
While there is no "magic" to getting a cat to lose weight, it's also not impossible.  If someone uses the above guidelines consistently, and really puts the effort into it, success is very likely.  If there are still issues even doing all of these things, bring the concern to your vet's attention.