Obesity in pets is becoming an epidemic and is a top health concern for pets, according to most veterinarians. It is estimated that 54 million cats and 34 million dogs in the US are clinically obese. Severe health problems can results from feline obesity, and the problem should be addressed before irreversible health conditions have a chance to take hold. This article is not a substitute for veterinary care; it is to familiarize you with the problem, as well as its causes and solutions. If you believe your cat may be suffering from feline obesity, see your veterinarian to decide on the proper course of action for your situation.
A cat is considered obese if it is more than 15% over its ideal weight. Humans have the Body Mass Index (BMI) to tell us how close to an ideal weight we are; cats don't have an easy chart to tell them this. Each breed of cat has different requirements and target weights, and needs to be individually examined. Your vet can accurately weigh your cat and check thyroid health, perform blood tests, and get an overall picture of where your cat is and where it needs to be regarding its weight and caloric needs. Any mammal will gain weight if it takes in more calories than it uses. If you or I ingest 3,000 calories and sit on the couch all day every day, we will gain a few pounds. Your cat is no exception – if he eats too many calories then sleeps all day long, he'll end up chubby.
The risk level for obesity is increased in some animals. Mixed breed cats are more likely to be overweight than purebred cats. Neutered animals have lower dietary needs, are usually less active than whole animals, and are more likely to become overweight. Kittens under two years old use more calories for growth and are less likely to be overweight and cats over ten years old are more likely to be underweight than obese. If your cat is a neutered, 6-year-old male cross between a Maine coon and a tabby, he is at a high risk for obesity.
Obesity can lead to a number of serious health problems and complications that can cut years off of your cat's life. The most common problem is Diabetes mellitus. Just like in humans, diabetes affects the production of insulin in the body and changes the metabolism of sugars and other carbohydrates in the body. Also just like in humans, obesity and inactivity only complicate the problem until it builds on itself. Another severe problem which can result from obesity is Hepatic lipidosis. This condition usually results from a dramatic decrease in metabolism usually caused by sudden anorexia in an animal. Fatty deposits form on the liver and can cause liver failure and possibly death in the cat. Other problems from obesity and poor nutrition can be lower urinary tract diseases, osteoarthritis, skin diseases, decreased stamina and exercise tolerance, decreased immunity to diseases, breathing problems, and potential complications with anesthesia and birthing.
There are a number of factors that might cause a cat to become obese but perhaps the most prevalent and easiest to see is the most effortless one for people to cause – free feeding. It is easy for us as owners to put a bowl of food with several day's worth of kibble into a bowl and go off to work. Most animals don't know how much they are "supposed" to eat in one day. They are, by nature, hunters who have the instinct to hunt and eat when they can in case the next time prey comes along, which might not be for several days.
Former strays are especially prone to overeating. They might be used to binging whenever they can find a meal and are harder to train to moderate themselves. Boredom can also cause a cat to nibble on their foods. Pet foods are naturally aromatic to attract the animal to them and encourage feeding so a bored cat might be tempted by the fishy smell in the bowl. Anyone in a multi-cat household knows that cats are very curious and competitive with regards to the other cats in the home. If one cat eats, others will usually follow.
Another easily caused (and easily solved) problem is treating your animal with snacks throughout the day. When a cat starts to vocalize loudly, owners will tend to throw it a treat to get it to stop. Not only will this lead to overfeeding, but it reinforces the negative behavior. It rewards the cat for doing a behavior that you may not want, and encourages the cat to repeat the behavior for another treat.
As serious of a problem as this may be, it is avoidable and easily remedied with some determination and modification on behalf of both you and your cat. Feeding should be modified to a healthy pattern. Regardless of the owners' preferences, no cat is a vegetarian. They are carnivores and need meat in their diet. A good diet would consist of at least 35-45% protein, moderate fat intake (30-40% is a good range to aim for) and low carbohydrates. Cats do not possess the chemical called amylase, which breaks down sugars and starches. So a diet where the main ingredient is flour, like most dry foods, is not a nutritious choice. Canned cat food generally consists of more protein-rich meats and should ideally be at least half of your cat's diet. Dietary supplements of L-carnitine and vitamin A will help to increase the metabolism of fat and can help your cat lose the extra pounds.
Your veterinarian can help you design a diet plan that will be healthy, safe and effective for your cat. This should begin only after a physical exam to determine the health of your cat and cause of the obesity. On your vet's recommendation, you can usually start weaning the cat off of its regular diet and onto a healthy weight loss diet over the course of a month. Have your cat reweighed on the same scale every month to track its weight. A healthy cat should lose no more than 1/2 pound over four weeks and your vet should be notified immediately if your cat stops eating for more than two days, as this might be a sign of another serious health problem.
In addition to a healthy diet, some behaviors may need to be modified to help your cat lose the weight and not all of the changes may be the cat's to make. You as the owner should be prepared to help your cat along on this process. Help your cat become more active and burn more calories by enriching its behavior. Move its food or even "hide" it so he has to hunt and search for his meal. Make playtime more interactive by getting your cat to chase after its toy – exercise for both of you! Decorate a cat climbing tree with bits of catnip or catgrass near the top that he'll have to climb to get. Feed several small meals throughout the day and separate multiple cats at mealtime if they compete with each other. Instead of sugary or flour-based treats, feed bits of fresh fish or chicken, and reward good behavior with special attention instead of food. If you can't resist slipping those scraps off the dinner table, remove your cat from the room during mealtime. The key to this or any weight lose regimen is persistence, consistency, and determination. It can take a year to get your cat healthy again, so don't give up after one month.