Cat Obesity and Weight Control
Do you have a fat cat? It's estimated that between 25 and 40 percent of cats seen by veterinarians in the United States are overweight, with many being obese. If your cat has ribs that are hard to feel, no visible waist, a round belly, and noticeable fat deposits, he is likely overweight. Being overweight is more than an esthetic issue; just as in humans, it predisposes your cat to some serious health problems:
- Overweight cats don't live as long as normal weight cats.
- Increased weight can place an excessive burden on joints, tendons, and ligaments, causing arthritic changes. Jumping down from high places can be especially hard on joints.
- Overweight cats may develop high blood pressure, placing an added burden on the heart. In addition, the heart must work harder to pump blood to all the additional body tissue.
- Obesity often brings on diabetes mellitus, as the body's requirements for insulin exceed the body's ability to produce it.
- Fat in the chest and abdomen can restrict the ability of the lungs to expand, making breathing difficult.
- Because excess fat is stored in the liver, hepatic lipidosis, in which increased fat builds up in the liver, can result.
- Overweight cats have a greater risk for urinary tract disease.
- Overweight cats present a greater surgical risk because of the effects of obesity on heart and lung function. Obese cats take longer to come out of anesthesia because a fatty liver may not be efficient in breaking down anesthetic drugs, which may also take longer to be cleared from the fat cells in the body. In addition, thick layers of fat may make it difficult for the surgeon to reach the surgical target.
- Overweight cats may have decreased immune function, increased skin fold pyodermas, increased risk of constipation, flatulence, and possibly increased chance of some cancers.
Although obesity can be caused by some medical conditions, in the vast majority of cases fat cats are the products of eating more calories than they expend. It's difficult to prod overweight cats into exercising, although you can increase your cat's activity to some extent with games and even short walks. The most effective way to help your cat lose weight is to reduce his calorie input.
Never put a cat on a crash diet. Cats have an unusual metabolic response to sudden fasting in which they develop a liver condition called hepatic lipidosis. Your cat didn't gain all this weight in a week or even a month; it's going to take him even longer to lose it.
First, no more free-feeding. Leaving food down for your cat to munch on at his leisure encourages him to eat more than he would if fed only in discreet meals. Feed three or four small meals each day (not three or four regular sized meals, but downsized ones) instead.
Second, feed a meat-based diet, such as one found in some canned foods. Dry food tends to be less palatable to most cats, and also contains high levels of carbohydrates, which cats do not metabolize as well as dogs. This might sound good at first, but you need your cat to like his food, and the carbohydrates in cats are more likely to be turned into fat. Avoid foods high in carbohydrates, and choose foods high in protein.
When changing diets from your cat's old diet to a new one, add the new food in gradually, exchanging about a quarter of the old diet for the new every few days until the entire bowl is filled with the new food after about a week. Abrupt diet changes could cause stomach upsets, which could in turn make the cat not look upon his new diet with gusto.
What about treats? Handing out treats is one of the pleasures of living with a cat. Just make sure those treats are healthy, such as slivers of chicken, and that you subtract their calorie count from the meal allotment for the day. When possible, redirect your cat's begging to another activity, such as a quick petting session or game. Sometimes refilling the water bowl with cool water will satisfy him. If he still demands a treat, toss it across the room so he at least gets a little exercise going after it.
Weigh your cat regularly, either weekly on your home scale or every few weeks at the veterinary clinic's more accurate scale. Depending on the result, evaluate your diet regime and make changes accordingly. Weight loss is not an overnight project, but your cat will thank you with many more active healthy years because of your efforts---even if he's looking at you accusingly as you hide the treats right now.