The Skinny on Fat Cats

Exercise and Proper Diet Keep the Pounds in Bounds

Apartment-dwelling cats, neu-tered cats, and couch-potato cats all share a common enemy: feline flab. The figures are as whopping as the cats themselves.

Studies show that 25 to 50 percent of all pet cats are overweight, says Joe Bartges, DVM, board certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, and professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Tennessees College of Veterinary Medicine. Indeed, feline obesity is the number one nutritional disorder among domestic cats.

Cats are on their way to obesity when they weigh in at 15 percent or more over their recommended body weight. On a 10-pound cat, this can be as little as 1 1/2 pounds.

Why fat cats get fat
Hereditary causes of feline obesity are not well understood, says Bartges. But the environmental causes are much the same as they are in humans. In essence, the cat consumes more calories than she expends, Bartges explains. The excess is stored for later, and all too often, there is no later. Cats need surprisingly little food to maintain a healthy body weight. Your cat may not need as much food as the cat food label indicates, notes Bartges.

Neutered and spayed cats are likely candidates for obesity. While neutering itself does not cause obesity, subsequent overfeeding and under-exercising does. Owners are doing the right thing by spaying or neutering their cats, and by keeping them inside, explains Bartges. But they need to take into account the resultant drop in metabolic rate. He feels that better-informed cat owners and veterinarians can help to, literally, reduce the situation.

Problems with pudginess
Unfortunately, many veterinarians still dont consider obesity a disease, comments Bartges. But, left undetected by cat owners and untreated by veterinarians, feline obesity can lead to a reduced life span and quality of life. Obese cats are twice as likely to die in middle age, which for cats is 6 to 12 years. Overweight cats are also predisposed to liver failure, urinary tract problems, bladder stones, and respiratory and cardiac disorders, says Bartges. Obesity also imparts insulin resistance, often resulting in a diabetic cat that requires insulin injections, explains Bartges. But this problem is reversible. Some cats no longer require insulin once they lose weight, he adds.

One Cornell feline obesity study showed that seriously overweight cats are seven times more likely to develop lameness and three times more likely to develop non-allergic skin conditions – probably due to an inability to groom themselves properly. Finally, an obese cats reduced responsiveness and physical activity level can diminish his bond with humans.

An ounce of prevention
Even more important than recognizing obesity is avoiding it in the first place. Weigh your cat and monitor her body composition regularly, via both hands-on and visual examination. Is she beginning to develop a rotund appearance? Check around the neck and abdomen, where cats tend to pack on weight, suggests Bartges. You should be able to feel her ribs easily. Next, put her up on a table and view her from the side. Her tummy should make a straight, horizontal line to her hind legs, rather than hanging down below her rib cage in the udder formation all too common among todays cats.

Dont wait for mid-life spread. Many cats are already overweight by the time theyre a year old, Bartges cautions. The weight often compounds in a stair-step fashion, where the cat gains, plateaus, then gains again, he notes.

Cats are what they eat
When it comes to the battle of the bulge, whats good for people who love cats is also good for the cats themselves – namely, exercise and proper diet. Admitting that your cat has a weight problem is a good first step. Then, make an appointment with your veterinarian to determine the degree of
obesity, rule out underlying medical conditions, and develop a safe, effective weight-reduction program.

Never attempt to get your cat to lose weight rapidly. The cat may refuse to eat altogether, resulting in liver failure due to fat accumulating in the liver, warns Bartges. New diets are best introduced slowly; weight slowly lost is more likely to stay off. One half to three quarters of a pound per month is a reasonable goal.

Both kids and other cats can put social pressure on a cat to overeat, says Bartges. Other cats often leave food, and competition for food, whether perceived or actual, makes some cats eat more. And kids often drop food, notes Bartges. It is essential that every family member knows the dangers of obesity and does his or her part to help. Treats and table scraps are no-nos.

An 8-year-old lap cat whose main exercise is walking to and from the food bowl certainly doesnt need a high-energy diet. But dont put an overweight cat on a less active or maintenance diet either, says Bartges. We dont want them to maintain their weight; we want them to lose it! Weight reduction diets are the way to go, he says. These foods are less dense and higher in fiber, so your cat can eat the same amount with fewer calories. And because they are prescription diets, he notes, Your cat will not be shorted on nutrients as she might be if you just cut down on her regular food.

While its easier to get a single cat to reduce, there are ways to manage a multi-cat household where only one cat is obese. Feed the cats separately, recommends Barges. If this isnt possible, feed them both a weight reduction diet, but feed the thinner cat more. Some ingenious cat owners create feeding areas with sliding doors; a narrow opening denies your tubby tabby access to her skinny siblings food.

Getting kitty off the couch
Exercise is the other part of the equation. Its easy to walk a dog on a leash around the block, but cats on leashes are less likely to be cooperative unless trained at an early age. However, where theres a will, theres a way! Find a toy she enjoys playing with. Anything that dangles on the end of a string is
a good bet. Try having her chase a laser pointer or a Ping-Pong ball, suggests Bartges. Or, mount her food dish off the floor, so she has to jump up to eat and gets some exercise along the way. Once a target body weight has been achieved, a maintenance diet can help your cat avoid further weight loss or a recurrence of weight gain.

Remember that our furry friends cant correct obesity on their own. Humans are the main cause of overweight cats, but they are also the main cure. Success depends upon your determination to provide your kitty with appropriate food and exercise. Your reward is a healthier and longer-lived companion. In this case, an ounce of obesity prevention can literally be worth pounds of cure!