Feline obesity: An increasing problem

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An overweight cat with cat insurance lounges around.
By: Dr. Kerry Fost
Managing DVM
The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

Feline obesity is a real disease affecting our pets’ health. It may be the most prevalent form of malnutrition in domestic cats. In the United States 44% of cats between the ages of five and eleven years are overweight.

Though we may see our “roly- poly “ feline friends as cute and cuddly, obesity has detrimental effects on pet health and longevity. Obesity related diseases in cats include osteoarthritis, diabetes, heart and respiratory diseases, constipation and an increase in some cancers. These are not so cute and cuddly.

The main reason for development of obesity in any animal is consuming more energy than is expended. As a veterinarian, my clients often tell me that their kitty really doesn’t eat that much. But if your cat is overweight, it is consuming more calories that it is burning no matter how little that food amount seems. This energy imbalance can occur with excessive dietary intake of calories through food or treats, or decreased energy expenditure due to illness, injury or inactivity.

One risk factor for obesity in cats includes being an indoor only cat. Indoor kitties don’t have to burn energy to keep warm outside and they often don’t get much exercise. Owners who have dry food available in the bowl all the time risk overfeeding. It only takes a few extra kibbles of food daily to put on pounds yearly. Neutering is also a risk factor for weight gain due to hormonal changes that may reduce metabolic rate. Neutering does prevent a number of other pet health risks and should not be avoided to prevent obesity.

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Aside from ensuring our cats have pet health insurance and routine exams, there are a few other things we can do to help our cats stay healthy.

First, carefully control the intake of calories. As soon as a pet is neutered, stop free choice feeding and you can reduce intake by about 25% to account for reduced energy needs. Kittens do not need to be fed a kitten food through one year of age. If they are neutered at five months they can be switched to an adult food. As we all know, it is easier to prevent weight gain than to fix it once it has happened. The average 11 pound house cat doesn’t need more than 200 kcals per day.

Second, meal feed a measured amount two to three meals a day. Your cat can be trained to a meal time. If you have more than one cat you will have to become the food police. Either separate the cats behind closed doors during meals, or feed in separate bowls several feet apart and stand there and remove any left over food when one walks away. Unlike dogs, cats often love human contact when they are eating. If you have to stand there, pet and talk to them making it an enjoyable social activity for everyone. Love with attention, not with food.

Third, feed a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. Cats are true carnivores. They have an obligate need to eat protein. They use this protein for energy and their digestive systems are not designed to utilize large amounts of carbohydrates. Carbs that are not immediately used for energy will be stored as fat. High protein, low carb diets also help normalize appetite, reducing the cats urge to eat constantly because they are satisfied.

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Forth, if at all possible feed canned food. The commercially available diets highest in protein and lowest in carbs are canned foods. But you must read the label. Not all canned foods are high protein, low carb.

There needs to be a meat source in the first couple of listed ingredients, not a grain or starch. To manufacture dry food, it is extruded (made into a biscuit). Carbohydrates are required in the cooking process, and thus, it is difficult to achieve a very low carb dry diet. Also many of the available high protein, low carb dry foods are not low calorie, so it is easy to feed too much. Most canned foods range from 30-40 Kcals per ounce. So a 5.5 ounce can is perfect for feeding an 11 pound cat in 24 hours.

Fifth, get that cat moving. Burn those calories. Obviously it is easier to exercise a dog than a cat. How often do you see someone walking their cat on a leash through the park? But if a cat is only eating 200 kcals a day every little bit of exercise helps. Get them going up and down the stairs. Give them elevated perches to climb, paper sacs to investigate, laser pointers to chase, a variety of toys. Cats can learn to fetch or play hide and go seek.

By keeping our feline friends at an optimal weight we can help them live a longer, healthier and more comfortable life. Who wouldn’t want that?

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