“He’s not fat, he is just fluffy! Look at that big boy, so cute!” We hear and see it all the time. Social media shows us these adorable pictures of overweight cats with cute taglines that pull at our heartstrings. While they may no doubt be cute, out job as your feline veterinarian is to help you understand the true nature of feline obesity. The majority of Canadian house cats are overweight in a way that poses serious risks to their health, and may shorten their life drastically.
We used to believe that cats would only eat as many calories they needed per day. However, we were very wrong, and now know that cats eat for many reasons. Many cat foods contain way more calories than a cat needs, so it is very easy for them to over-eat.
Understanding and using our knowledge of normal cat eating and drinking behaviors can help us to successfully get our cats to lose the weight.
A good weight loss program begins with a thorough health exam and case history by your feline veterinarian and staff. Sometimes, we will recommend a blood test to ensure that the diet selected is the right one for your cat. For example, cats that have early kidney disease should not be put on the high protein low carbohydrate diets as the kidneys are responsible for clearing out proteins. Excess protein in the diet can lead to further kidney damage.
Some cats just like some humans are designed to survive if the food gets scarce. Lowering their daily calorie count results in their bodies adjusting to the “food shortage” by lowering the metabolic rate at which they burn calories. So the more we cut the calories the more their bodies respond by lowering the basal metabolic rate. When the cats go back to a slightly higher daily calorie intake they store the extra calories in fat. This is the cat version of “yo-yo” dieting. We can try and prevent yo-yo weight fluctuations with the type of diet we recommend and by increasing their exercise levels. As with humans, often these exercise plans will start with baby steps such as getting your cat to walk the length of the kitchen two times before the food is put down.
If you have multiple cats in your household it is important to break the fat cat/skinny cat cycles. Just understanding that cats unlike humans are not social eaters can assist in putting into place strategies that allow each cat to eat their required amount comfortably without having to worry that their fellow feline is going to steal the food right off their plates
Feeding toys that make it more of a challenge for the cat to get to their food can address the issue of boredom. Food balls that the cat must roll in order to get the food to come out can get them moving and increase the challenge of getting their foods. Cardboard boxes can be made into mazes that differ every few days. The reward is the food in the middle of the maze.
Just as no one diet works for all people, no one diet works for all cats. And for sure the diet plan put into place must make sure that the cat feels full. This feeling of fullness is call satiety.
“THE CAT WHO CRIES FOR FOOD AT 3 a.m. IS THE CAT THAT WILL BE FED.” Tubby the Tabby Cat.
Satiety (the feeling of fullness) is the key to cat owners sticking to their cat’s diet plan. There are a number of ways that we can accomplish this. Feeding multiple small meals works for some cats. The famous tossing of the kibble game can also be employed. Keeping a favorite toy on the kitchen counter to distract the cat when crying for food is another good technique. Some cats respond well to added fiber in their diets to give their tummies that full feeling—just like eating more vegetables for people. Other cats, when fed a high protein, low carb diet will produce a chemical that goes to the brain that tells them they are full. We lovingly call this strategy the “Catkins Diet”. There is even a diet on the market that works on the genome level basically switching off the fat cat genes and turning on the skinny cat genes. (Yes, fat cats and skinny cats do appear to vary genetically!)
Getting them to drink more water may also help when they are losing weight. Do cats eat more when they are thirsty? It is quite possible. So tempting them to take in more water can help with weight loss. Fountains can be used, canned food instead of dry are just a few of the strategies to get them to drink more — it’s very similar to the trick of drinking a few glasses of water before a meal.
Attending follow up weigh ins with your cat’s health care specialist is helpful for measuring the cat’s weight loss. It also keeps cat parents more motivated when they can talk about what is working and not working for them with trained sympathetic staff.
The most important factor if a cat weight loss regime is to succeed is getting you to understand how important it is for your cat’s health and future well being. Love for our cats does not have to manifest itself by overfeeding them. The best kind of cat love is the one that keeps them healthy and happy.