By Eugenia Vlasova and Barb Seegers
“Help my cat to lose weight” is my New Years resolution. The truth is, my little kitty is obese, and the only reason for that is because I let her eat as much as she wants. I talked to Dr. Stephen McDowell, at Leamington Animal Hospital and asked him for advice about developing healthier eating habits for my cats. In this article I’m sharing what I’ve learned about feline obesity and how to improve a cat’s well being.
Why That Happens to Us?
Why are humans and their pets are becoming overweight? Why is it a growing epidemic? For centuries, food was scarce, and getting food was a challenging task. Our bodies learned to eat a bit more than needed when food became available in order to survive through tough times. Various scientific theories presume that we are pre-wired to overeat. It’s a precautionary measure that our body developed in the long course of human history. Since having enough food at any given time is a relatively new thing, humans tend to overeat without even realizing it. We no longer chase our pray to get a juicy steak – we have it when we want it. The same is true for our cats. They are gaining weight, because they have more than enough food available to them all the time.
You may say, “I love my cats the way they are”, but consider that feline obesity can result in serious adverse health effects, such as reducing the lifespan of the cat, arthritis, diabetes, hepatic lipidosis (feline liver disease) and much more.
While unhealthy eating habits are the main factor contributing to feline obesity, there could be other reasons such as hypothyroidism, insulinoma (a tumor of the pancreas that produces excessive amounts of insulin), hyperadrenocorticism (oversecretion of a hormone by the pituitary gland) and other metabolic disorders. If your cat has excessive weight, it is recommended to talk to a veterinarian and, probably run a few blood tests, before considering any diet changes. However, if your cat doesn’t demonstrate any signs of serious health issues, it is very likely that the only reason they are obese is they’re getting too much food. “Calories in vs calories out is the biggest reason. Hard to get your cat good exercise.” Dr McDowell said.
If you are not sure whether your cat is overweight or not there is a simple test. Gently check his/her ribs. “I like to maintain body condition where I can feel ribs but not see them,” Dr. McDowell said. If you can see the ribs, your cat is underweight. If you feel them, your cat is fine. If you can’t feel them, it’s time to take weight reduction measures.
Free Feeding Vs. Meal Time
One way to improve your cat’s eating habits is to switch from free feeding food 24/7, to a set meal time. One of the most common recommendations is to feed your cat twice a day, and withhold all other food between meals. Cats are not accustomed to have food around all the time – they are hunters, not plant eaters. By withholding food between meals, you’ll improve your cat’s waistline in a few different ways:
- You keep their eating space and bowls clean
- You prevent food contamination
- Cat food may work as an attractant of other pests, so storage in a sealed container is a good idea anyway
- Your cats won’t smell their food, therefore they won’t think about food all the time. Out of sight – out of mind.
My personal experience has shown that switching from free feeding to regulated meals is more difficult for a cat owner than for cats. Cats won’t stop loving you if you feed them twice a day. They won’t ruin your house out of revenge. Moreover, most likely, they’ll be nicer to you and more playful.
If you think that your cats won’t let you sleep because their food is unavailable, give them more food in the evening, and make the morning portion smaller. Cats are nocturnal. There breakfast is our bedtime. I recommend feeding 2/3 of their daily ration for their breakfast (in the evening) and 1/3 of their daily ration in the morning. “Let them protest all they want during the day when I am awake,” Dr McDowell suggested.
When you decide what time in the morning and in the evening works best for you and your cats, stick to your schedule and don’t believe those eyes – cats are drama queens. They will meow, rub against your feet, lick your hands and face…. well… you know their tricks.
There is another important technicality. How long should food remain in bowls? Dr McDowell said, “I recommend 15 minute meal times, especially in multi-cat homes, where one cat eats to live and others live to eat”.
Choosing The Food
Each cat owner knows what food works best for his/her furry friend. Online holy wars over “dry vs. wet vs. natural” can last forever, but what’s important is that your cat gets enough necessary nutrients. “You can feed wet or dry. Both supply daily nutritional needs. Wet food is more palatable for animals and thus is tempting to eat. Dry food is more abrasive on the teeth and is good for plaque control. Wet food produces a lower specific gravity urine for urine crystal management since cats are desert animals with long loops of Henle (the portion of a nephron that create a concentration gradient in the medulla of the kidney) enabling them to concentrate their urine to the point of crystal formation/urinary tract obstruction”, Dr. McDowell said.
When is it time to switch to a weight management formula? Well, weight management foods could be of some help when dealing with feline obesity, but it is not a magic wand. “Most cats look good between 8-12 lbs (3.5 kg to 5.5 kg). Weight management food simply has reduced calories per unit volume. It has all the necessary nutrients, but cats can overeat weight management foods and not lose weight if their caloric intake exceeds their caloric output,” Dr. McDowell said.
Losing and maintaining a healthy weight for your feline friend is both easy and hard. It’s easy because it is all about caloric balance – input should not exceed output. “Eat less, exercise more” – as simple as that. It’s hard, because persistence is key. Reducing the daily amount of food is not hard, sticking with the smaller portions and fewer treats is much harder. “I think weight management is simple, others do not. It’s not fair to have to go through life hungry but some of us have to do that”, Dr. McDowell said.
If you start changing your cat’s eating habits today, you may be able to avoid hefty vet checks in the future, not to mention prolonging the life of your feline friend.