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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Feline Obesity: The Fat Cat Syndrome

Today’s subject is the very sensitive issue of fat cats. Nobody wants to be told that their cat is overweight, let alone obese. But the sad fact is that over 50 percent of our cats are either overweight or obese.

This is a subject that hits close to home for me as well. Two of my cats, Rhette and Rusty, have weight issues that we struggle with constantly. A third, Midge, actually has a tendency to be underweight if I do not feed her separate from the others, where she does not get bullied. Rhette in particular is highly food motivated and has been known to lie in front of the food dish and guard it from the other cats, even when he has already eaten his fill.

How do we handle the weight issues? It’s a constant battle. With six cats, it is difficult to monitor the food intake of each individual cat. I do my best to stay away from foods that have high carbohydrate content. I prefer those that are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates.

My cats generally eat a combination of wet and dry. I do believe wet food has benefits, but I also like the fact that I can put the dry food in a food puzzle and encourage some exercise that way. The cats seem to enjoy chasing the food ball. I think they believe it’s magic when it mysteriously spills food kernels out on the floor.

We do measure and count calories too, but I have to be honest: Being able to separate all six of them into different areas with their own quantity of food to eat is impossible. So, I’m sure Rhette and Rusty get more than their share of the food, despite my best efforts. We make up for that, at least as best we can, by encouraging them to exercise a bit more than the other cats.

How do I encourage the cats to exercise? Fortunately, it is not usually too difficult to get them interested in a game of chase the toy, and we make time for that at least a couple times a day. The food ball helps too, and Rhette and Rusty are particularly fond of it. Generally, I do not put a lot of food in it, just enough to keep them interested in the game. But most of their allowance of dry food goes into the ball.

Interestingly, all of my cats have favorite toys. Dillon likes toys with feathers and likes to chase them as they fly through the air. Lilly likes to stalk mouse-style toys that are pulled across the ground. Merlin likes pretty much anything that moves (including tails, which the other cats generally do not appreciate!). Rhette and Rusty like toys that roll, but they enjoy chasing strings pulled across the floor, too. Midge prefers the laser pointer.

What do I recommend for my feline patients who are overweight or obese? In most cases, exactly the same things I do for my own cats: regulate the food intake, don’t let your cat overeat, and encourage exercise through interactive play and other forms of environmental enrichment.

Is weight loss easy? Heavens, no. Is it beneficial? Oh, yes, definitely! A lean cat is a much healthier cat.

With weight loss in cats, slow and steady wins the race though. Rapid weight loss is dangerous and puts your cat at even higher risk.

Dr. Lorie Huston

Image: Katrina Elena / via Shutterstock

Comments  17

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  • Fat Cats
    10/10/2011 11:42am

    I too have 6 cats - some with desire to eat everything in sight.
    I feed 1 on bathroom counter [ who refuses to eat with the others around ], 2 on opposite sides of kitchen floor,2 on table and 1 on counter.
    Every meal is an ordeal for me but not them. After they all have their food, I stand on guard with the fly swatter. This is not to hit them but to hit the table when one tries to gobble and get to the bowls of the slow eaters or just block their way with it.They know the meaning of the swatter and generally obey its rule.
    After they have finished, the piggies race down to the bathroom door and wait for me to open it in case she did not eat it all.
    Such fun it is !!!!!

  • 10/10/2011 12:35pm

    Your routine doesn't sound much different than mine...LOL. What we won't do for our cats, huh? :-)

  • Food box
    10/10/2011 12:14pm

    I've gotten several of my heavy cats to steadily lose the fat by changing to primarily canned food. My two seniors need dry to maintain their weight so dry is always accessible in a food box with a selective kitty door that only lets them in. My husband built it out of wood, but here's directions for making one out of a large cardboard box:
    http://www.robwatson.com/Foodboxes.html

  • 10/10/2011 12:39pm

    Thanks for that link and info about the food box. Very useful.

  • 10/11/2011 08:57pm

    I am considering the same thing - I knew dry food was more calorie dense than wet but when I looked at it in detail, I was surprised at how much! So I'm cutting back on the dry and adding more wet food, he doesn't have a lot to lose but I don't want a fat cat!

  • 10/10/2011 01:23pm

    I (like everyone else it seems) struggle to maintain a healthy weight for my naturally large, but perpetually fat cat. We have had pretty good luck with a food ball. Hes quite motivated to eat, and this rations his food (depending on the setting) so he really has to want it and in return work for it. We use only the food ball plus a small daily ration of food for his meals...and now he only has about a stubborn pound to go! If there are people in this world with cats that don't struggle with weight problems...I want to meet them and learn their secrets!!!!:)

  • 10/10/2011 01:33pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience. And I congratulate you on your success in getting your kitties weight down. It's not an easy fight but it's worth it. Good luck with that last pound! And keep up the good work.

  • 10/10/2011 02:38pm

    I can understand how you feel.I think like humans, some cats have a weight tendency.
    I feed homemade food.I have cut the big guy down and he is a good weight now but is still one of the piggies that would eat anything. His sister, the other piggy is about 1/3 his size with only 4 teeth but she can wolf down everything instantly. One of my thin and sleek cats is a slow eater and only eats until she is satisfied and enjoys every morsel. I think the piggies don't even have time to taste.
    My other slim cat is a ferral I took in about a year ago.He will eat everything and anything.If I forget to hide the bread, he will eat it. He goes into the cupboards and eats whatever he can find. Yet , he always stays slim.
    Heredity i am sure is the culprit for many. Keep up the good work. I know it is frustrating.

  • Overweight vs. Obese
    10/10/2011 04:09pm

    Well as a former personal fitness trainer and one who practices what she preaches, I know too well the importance of eating right and fitness. Hence I vowed never to have a fat cat, or should I say an obese cat.

    Well per one holistic vet, my cats are fat. I was devasted--my children fat?! Technically he's right. That little pouch is starting to droop. But compared to most other indoor cats, mine are just about right with the exception of Johnnie Walker. My other six do play on their own and I allow them to jump on counters. There are no limits. Living in a 2 bedroom condo, and after watching Animal Planet, I learned cats are meant to run, climb and eat protein over carbs. Since I did not want to invest in a litter of cat condos hence my home would look more like cat jungle, they can walk, run climb whereever their hearts desire (the reason I vacuum every day so you DONT see or smell cat at my home). And I also try to initiate exercise with the laser. They all love the laser! Only the females like the wand with feathers, especially my supermodel Geisha. She's the tiniest and you should see her fly!

    Johnnie Walker is the only one who eats and sleeps. He lacks all self-motivation to initiate any activity (sounds like us humans) unless I bring out the red laser dot. So he's indeed quite portly--much like the logo of Johnnie Walker label with man striding with jolly belly. He likes people more than cats.

    I suspect one or two cats may suffer from hypoglycemia and start vomiting after hours without food when sugar levels drop. I suffer from this illness for 30 years and can relate. So I leave dry food out throughout the day(Iams weight management), and feed moist at breakfast and smaller portion for bedtime snack before last burst of playtime. But since I did not want to separate Johnny Walker from the other cats, (in hopes he does want to play) I know he grazes when I'm not looking or at home. But he normally eats his dry food on bathroom counter where I make him run and jump three times before feeding him. The things we do for our children.

  • 10/11/2011 07:19pm

    Especially with our less-than-active cats, weight management can be especially challenging. Believe me, it's not a fight you're in alone. There are a ton of other pet owners out there fighting the same battle, myself included.

  • limited food
    10/10/2011 06:33pm

    I have 2 cats that are big fat cats and 2 tiny ones.
    They are fed twice a day 1/4 c. in the a.m. and 1/4 in the p.
    They don't eat that much of it infact there is left over because the kitten eats most.
    Why is she so big and the other one who's a kitten and 14 lbs. but does not eat a lot.
    Are there some cats that are prone to being fat?

  • 10/11/2011 07:40pm

    Yes, I do think genetics plays a role, just like it does in people. That can make weight management difficult too.

  • On The Mean Streets
    10/11/2011 07:24am

    In my herd, the overweight cats are those that have been on the mean streets.

    The ones who have not known hunger are fit and not food motivated. Those that have had to struggle to stay alive are chunky (one is pretty darned round).

    Perhaps I'm projecting onto my kitties, but I cannot imagine how terrifying it might be to be hungry again. I've changed the Trail Mix to include a heavy percentage of low-cal food, but I just can't make myself do meals as opposed to free-feeding.

  • 10/11/2011 11:07am

    I have found just the opposite. I mainly take in abandoned and abused and ferral cats. I have found they are generally the ones who can eat any amount of food and stay thin.
    Those that don't have a background of suffering are the fatties with me.
    They all get a morning meal of homemade food plus Vet supplied kibble and an evening meal of the same.I also give them a noon snack of a few kibble.
    I don't trust the commercial pet food anymore and think they may be a large part of our problem.

  • 10/11/2011 07:43pm

    I've seen both so I'm not really sure what the relationship is there. It makes sense that the guys that had to scrap for their food would be more likely to "scarf" their food but that doesn't always seem to be the case. Though sometimes it does happen that way.

    I've seen plenty of cats that were raised indoors and that have never known hardship that are couch potatoes with weight issues too :)

  • Pet obesity
    10/14/2011 11:54pm

    Great personal perspective Lorie.
    I'm so glad to hear you advocate the use of playing with toys, especially those from which food can be dispensed, as a means of exercising your cat.
    In the wild, cats would have to work for their food by hunting (or occasionally scavenging, which would require them to at least walk or run to the food site), so why should we just place an food dish in an easily accessible location where they can gorge themselves.
    Breakfast, lunch, and dinner times should be play times!
    Dr Patrick Mahaney
    www.patrickmahaney.com
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

  • 10/15/2011 03:11am

    I couldn't agree with you more, Patrick. A couple of my cats would never get off the bed/couch/chair/whatever if they didn't have that incentive.

    The exercise is good for their overall health too, just like it is for us :)


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