Why Your Cat's Weight Really Matters

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PetMD Editorial
Published: January 15, 2013

Weight Isn’t Just a Cosmetic Issue

By Cheryl Lock

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 54% of the nation’s dogs and cats are overweight, and the founder of APOP, Ernie Ward, DVM, is really not happy about it.

“We often try to compare what’s happening with our pets to the childhood obesity epidemic, since it’s a similar pattern that emerges,” said Dr. Ward. “The biggest problem is that by the time most people recognize the problem, it’s often too late.”

So why is it that having an obese cat is such a problem? Dr. Ward broke it down.

The Two Main Problems with Overweight Cats

There are really two factors to keep in mind when you consider the issues associated with overweight and obese pets, says Dr. Ward: health and money.

The first, health, should come as no surprise to those who are aware of all the health issues that overweight people have to deal with. “It’s not only the fact that obese pets face a shorter life expectancy, but it’s the quality of the life they’re leading in the first place,” says the doctor.

A few of the major health issues that obese cats have to deal with include osteoarthritis, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and respiratory disease, kidney disease, cancer, and more.

“The real heartbreaker for me as a vet, though, is that these pets have such a diminished quality of life,” Dr. Ward said. “I see the consequences, and I wish for those pets that I could roll back the tape to five years ago and say ‘Let’s change a few minor things here and there and we could have avoided all of this.’ It’s avoidable, not inevitable.”

Besides the health factors, Dr. Ward is also astounded by the amount of money that is spent when it comes to treating obese pets. He estimates that obese animals are costing owners tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in unnecessary medical bills each year. “From an economic perspective this is huge,” he said. In fact, according to Dr. Ward, a lot of the vet care expenses associated with weight issues would go away if we would all start making smarter and better food choices for our pets. You heard that right; better pet food choices can save you money!

The Road to a Solution

Dr. Ward suggests a few very specific steps when it comes to preventing and treating cats that are overweight or obese — and it starts with a conversation.

“I’m demanding of my profession,” says Dr. Ward. “Pet owners will come to me and say, ‘I asked my vet about my pet’s weight and he didn’t seem interested.’ When it comes to your pet’s weight, it’s crucial to find a vet who’s interested and knowledgeable. If you’re not having a conversation with your vet about what you’re feeding your pet and how much you’re feeding him, you’re missing an important step to preventative health care.”

Aside from keeping the lines of communication open with your veterinarian, Dr. Ward also suggests the following to monitor your cat’s weight:

  • Measure your cat’s food. Dr. Ward says that in survey after survey pet owners admit to eyeballing or "guestimating" how much food they feed their cats on a daily basis. The right thing to do? Ask your vet exactly how much food you should be feeding your cat, get a measuring cup and give your furry friend exactly that amount each day — no more, no less. “And check back with your vet each year for the amount,” says Dr. Ward. “Just because you fed your cat one cup last year doesn’t mean he should be getting the same this year.”
  • Ease up on the cat treats. Often when we feel guilty about not being able to spend as much time with our pets, we satisfy them with additional treats, says Dr. Ward. While it’s unnecessary to stop giving your furry friend treats altogether, he suggests keeping an eye on it, and not going overboard when giving out treats — especially with cat treats that are high in fat and sugar.
  • Consider canned food for cats. A cat’s metabolism works differently than that of humans, or even dogs, and so when they become obese, there’s no simple way to exercise the weight off of them. “That’s why I always suggest my cat owners switch to canned food,” says Dr. Ward. “It’s an easy way to make sure we’re feeding our cats only the amount of food they need.” In fact, over the years APOP has run tests on popular cat food brands and found that even if you only overfeed your cat an average 10 extra dry bits of food per day, that adds up to about a pound of weight gain per year for the average cat. “If a cat is struggling to maintain a healthy weight, switching might just do the trick.”

If you think your own cat might be at risk for being overweight or obese, your first line of action is to make an appointment with your veterinarian. “Of all the decisions pet owners make regarding their animal’s health, the most important is what we choose to feed them,” said Dr. Ward. “It’s not rocket science or a medical secret, just good old fashioned food measuring and making smart choices. That alone can have tremendous impacts on the length of quality of your pet’s life.”

Image: Joy Brown / via Shutterstock

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