By Jean Hofve, DVM
Obesity is a serious problem for our feline friends. Many serious health problems can result from obesity, such as arthritis, liver disease, heart failure, and renal disease.
Prevention is key here: don’t allow your cat to become overweight in the first place. Pay attention to your kitten’s growth to make sure he does not fill out “too much.” The average weight gain for a kitten is approximately one pound per month up to 8-10 pounds.
How can you tell if your cat’s too fat? You should be able to feel the ribs easily, without excessive padding between the skin and ribs. Even thin cats may have a little “pooch” in the belly between the hind legs, but this should not be excessive. From above, there should be a bit of a waist, rather than a bulge, between ribs and hips. From the side, the abdomen should tuck up a little bit.
While nutritionists simplify obesity as a matter of “too many calories in and too few calories expended,” it is obviously not that simple. Obesity is a symptom of a systemic imbalance, basically a disease state. Dieting (starving) a cat down to his “ideal” weight does not address the cause of the problem. Common contributors to obesity include:
- In a multi-cat household, when one cat goes to the food bowl, curiosity or the competitive instinct may cause another cat to investigate and, while she’s there, take a few nibbles. Enough nibbles over time can create a big problem!
- Boredom also plays a role. Cats who are home alone all day may eat just for something pleasurable to do. Spending quality time with your cat, particularly using play therapy sessions, will be a crucial part of a weight loss program.
- Fear eating can be a factor for former stray cats who have had to struggle to survive on the streets; these cats often have significant “food issues,” and will often become overweight if food is constantly available.
- Treats can contribute quite a few calories to a cat’s daily fare. The client who claimed he only fed his 26-pound cat 1/4 cup of light food per day was a mystery–until he admitted to feeding 19 Pounce treats a day!
As a veterinarian, I don’t like to put cats on a “diet”. Diets must often be severe in order to comply with current calorie theories, and this may cause even worse problems, such as life-threatening liver disease. Skipping a single meal can throw a sensitive cat into a serious problem. Morever, while lots of vets will sell you weight-control food for your cat, few of them will tell you that free-choice feeding of such foods usually results in weight gain rather than loss. You still have to control the cat’s food intake.
Animals may consume excessive amounts of a food because they can’t digest it properly, there aren’t enough of certain nutrients, or some nutrients are not in a “bioavailable” form–that is, they can’t be assimilated properly. This is a concern with some of the most inexpensive and generic foods, as well as with some “diet” foods that contain excessive levels of fiber.
Dry food is actually where the most dangerous calories are. The feline is uniquely adapted to get energy from protein and fat; the cat’s natural prey contain very little carbohydrate. For most cats, carbohydrates are converted to fat, rather than be burned for energy. Clearly, this is the opposite of where we want to go!
Commercial pet foods tend to contain poor quality fats; this is especially true of dry food. Therefore it is important to add the right kind of essential Omega-3 fatty acids–even though it seems a little peculiar that to lose weight in a healthy manner, more fat is needed!
There are two major strategies for helping a fat cat lose weight.
Feed in timed meals. For most cats, it’s best to feed them on a timed-meal schedule. That is, don’t leave the food out all the time, but rather put the food out for 30-45 minutes, two or three times a day. Cats figure out this schedule quickly. Not all cats will lose weight with this change alone, but usually you can keep them from continuing to gain. (Caution: some medical conditions require special feeding regimens; talk to your veterinarian before making any changes.)
Feed more wet food. In general, cats should receive at least 75 percent of their diet as wet food, either good-quality canned foods or homemade diets. For significant, healthy weight loss, feed 100% canned food and get rid of the dry altogether. (There are many reasons to ditch the dry food, but we can just start with the fact that all those carbs will turn to fat because the cat can’t use them for energy!) Always make sure kitty is eating; some cats are so addicted to their dry food that they will go on a hunger strike without it. Be sure you work closely with your veterinarian when changing diets to minimize the risk to your cat.
A high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet (think “Atkins”–or should we say, “Catkins”!) is truly ideal for the cat. Most canned cat and kitten foods meet these standards, but try to choose those with the least carbohydrate. You can get a fair idea of carbohydrate content by simply subtracting all the listed percentages on the label from 100%. About 8% carbohydrate (or less) is best. Although it seems counter-intuitive to eat more fat while trying to lose weight, adding will help maintain a good balance in the body, and provide support for the immune and nervous systems.
Throughout the weight management process, whatever the results, give your cat plenty of love and attention. Play therapy is good exercise, builds her confidence, and strengthens the bond between the two of you. Lots of affection will help her equate love and comfort with you–and not her food bowl.