Pets, Places, & Things, Points on Pets

Should I Care if My Cat Is Overweight?

By Alberta Frost

I have adopted two wonderful companions from King Street Cats (the only all-volunteer, cats only, no-kill rescue in Alexandria, Virginia).  My first was a shy boy who is very solid and muscular.  When I took him to his first vet appointment, I was surprised that the doctor said, “this cat should not gain any more weight.”  Turns out, at the shelter he had been hiding all day only coming out at night to chow down on dry food.  His sturdy frame was disguising a growing waistline.  When he began to feel comfortable at my house, he started getting more exercise and, heeding the veterinarian’s advice about weight control, I switched him to canned food.  He slimmed down a bit.

Now enters Cat Number Two – younger, more active but with a bit of a belly on him, and a great love of eating.  Again, to my surprise, at his first checkup the doctor said his weight was perfect; he just had an unusual body shape for a young cat!  The cats became good friends.  So much so that Cat Number One let cat Number Two eat some of his food at every meal.  Suddenly I have one cat who is a bit trimmer and another who – you guessed it—has become overweight.

Obesity in cats is defined by the animal medical community as 20% above normal weight. Just like us humans, this condition is a growing problem and it has serious health consequences.  Obesity is the most common preventable disease in cats in North America, affecting almost 60% of domestic cats.  This condition shortens cats’ lives and increases the risks of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and urinary bladder stones.

How do you determine if your pet is overweight and, therefore, at risk for these serious health complications?  Your cat’s medical provider is a good place to start, but there is also something called the “Body Condition Score”.  A chart provided by several pet food manufacturers like Hill and Purina can help you with the assessment.  What it asks you to do is gauge by touch and observation the visibility of your pet’s ribs, the presence of a “waist”, and how easy it is to feel the vertebrae.

If you determine that your cat does need a weight loss program, don’t undertake it without advice from a veterinarian.  Cats that are put on diets where food intake is severely restricted are at risk of developing a life-threatening condition called fatty liver disease.  Even a healthy cat who quits eating for a day or two needs immediate medical attention because of the threat to liver function.  In view of the delicate balance between over and under feeding, a thoughtful program that results in gradual weight loss is the only way to go.

Obviously, your strategy will depend to some degree on your current feeding practices and how overweight your cat is.  According to Dr. Carolyn McDaniel of Cornell, “free feeding” of dry food all day is the frequent cause of an overweight cat so switching to canned food (which is higher in protein, lower in carbohydrate and has increased fluid content) is a logical first step.  It is not recommended that you reduce the volume of food you offer your cat so temporary reliance on weight management products may be in order.  Having distinct, regular mealtimes can also help keep you in control of your pet’s food intake.

Once the desired weight is achieved, you can switch to a maintenance diet, gradually adding/changing the food over a 2 to 3-month period and always checking that good weight is maintained.  Using a baby scale is helpful to this whole process so that you can weigh your pet at regular intervals.

Also adding exercise to your cat’s day is good for their weight and mental health.  This can range from things as simple as playing with your cat to providing an outdoor enclosure, an agility course or cat trees.  Food puzzles are also a good challenge especially if, like my cat, your furry friend is a treat hound.  Appropriate use of treats is another good subject to discuss with your vet.

If this all sounds like a lot of unnecessary work because your cat seems pretty happy at the moment, just remember that our pets’ longevity and quality of life is in our hands.  At least on this particular health issue.

My two boys now get several canned food small meals a day served in separate rooms.  I like to think that I am in charge of the timing of those meals, but there is some question about that as the two of them are masters of the hard-eyed stare.  Kibble is mostly a much-desired treat, not a diet staple.  My approach does seem to keep them content and, I hope, healthy for many years to come.  The course of action you take will, of course, be dictated by your own circumstances, the advice of experts and importantly, the nature of your cats; but I hope you make weight management an important part of their care.

About the Author: Alberta Frost is a longtime volunteer at King Street Cats and proud owner of two very bossy cats.

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