Are Breed Standards Causing Obesity in Cats?

Ken Tudor, DVM
Published: February 10, 2015
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Last February I shared some research that suggested American Kennel Club (AKC) breed standards in dogs could predict individuals at risk for obesity.

The AKC descriptions of ideal show qualities for “bolder” breeds encourages breeding for dogs that pack on more fat. These dogs were bred to work in colder climates, so having a “thrifty gene” that promoted the maintenance of body fat made sense. These dogs no longer work, but the show language perpetuates the same genetic stock that is prone to obesity now that lifestyles have changed.

Cats were not bred for work, but for show. Yet, it turns out that breed standards defined by the American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA) also encourages breeding cats that are prone to obesity. The findings were just released in the current issue of the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition.

The Study

The same researchers that did the AKC study at a Dutch dog show conducted the new research at a cat show. Simply, they examined 268 show cats and assigned each a Body Condition Score (BCS) and then compared the results to the descriptors used for the ideal show qualities for each cat’s breed.

To review, a BCS is a visual/palpation 9-point method of assessing a pet’s body fat percent. This simple system has been shown to correlate perfectly with the sophisticated duel-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA, for measuring body fat. BCS scores of 1-3 are for cats that are too thin. Perfect, Goldilocks cats have a BCS of 4-5. Cats with a BCS of >5-7 are considered overweight, and cats with a BCS of >7-9 are considered obese.

The researchers found that almost 46% of the 268 cats had a BCS greater than 5. That means almost half of the cats in the show were overweight. They also found that almost 5% were obese. A not so surprising finding was that 90% of neutered adult males and 82% of neutered adult females were overweight with a BCS greater than 5.

Sexual alteration is a well-established risk factor for obesity in cats and requires dramatic lifestyle changes after surgery. Sadly, however, almost 44% of intact males and 29% of intact females also had a BCS greater than 5. It appears that intact show cats also need some lifestyle changes.

Most interesting is how the BCS compared to the language describing the ideal body type of the breeds.

Breed Differences

The following are some of the descriptors used by the ACFA for ideal standards of lean breeds:

  • Regal
  • Lithe
  • Firm muscle tone
  • Slender
  • Fine boned
  • Prominent cheek bones
  • Medium frame

So how did these breeds stack-up?

It looks like Goldilocks perfection, right?

Now compare these descriptors of more robust breeds and their BCS results:

  • Large, almost square
  • Sturdy
  • Bull neck
  • Substantial bone structure
  • Broad chest
  • Large and imposing
  • Robust power
  • Short and cobby

And these cats are all considered, by medical standards, overweight

There are a couple of possibilities to explain the results of this study. One might think that certain cats also poses the “thrifty gene” like dogs and breeding to meet show standards strengthens the tendency to spare body fat. I do not know if there is research to support that possibility. Another explanation could be the standards themselves. In striving to meet show qualities, breeders may be selecting genetic traits that promote an overweight physique.

Given that excess fat and obesity is the major condition affecting pets, especially cats, it might be time for the ACFA to re-think their breed descriptions and standards. The percentage of overweight and obese cats at this show, neutered and un-neutered, far exceeds the estimated percentages of overweight and obese cats in the general population. It would be interesting to know if the show was an anomaly or if it represents cat shows in general.

Dr. Ken Tudor


R.J. Corbee. Obesity in show cats. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr  2014;98(6):1075-1079

Image: Maciej Czekajewski / Shutterstock