Does your cat polish your floor with his stomach as he walks? Is his food bowl bigger than your head? Do you grunt when you try to pick him up? Does he bounce when he lands on the floor? Do you spend more on his food bill than your own?
People see fat cats as subjects of humor. They make cartoons with cute captions, manipulate photos into amusing cards, and crack jokes about their rotund companions. As harmless as it seems, obesity in our feline companions is not a joke. The health risks are very real. For nearly 40% of American cats, their lives will be shortened by years due to this preventable problem.
All cat owners should know if their cat is obese, what problems are associated with obesity, what causes obesity, and how to fix the problem.
So how do I know if my cat is obese?
Obesity is commonly defined as being more than 20% above the ideal weight. How that ideal weight is determined, however, isn't always cut and dried. Unlike humans, who have Body Mass Index and other various charts to guide them, there isn't an established chart of acceptable weights for cats due to the large variations between the different breeds. A Maine Coon will be much heavier than a Siamese. For this reason, obesity in cats is determined using body condition scoring. Body condition scoring usually ranges from 1 to 9, with 5 being ideal and 9 being grossly overweight.
So how can you tell if your cat's too fat? Feel his sides. Can you feel his ribs? A little fat covering is ideal. You should be able to feel his ribs if you put slight pressure on his sides, but you shouldn't be able to count them just by running your hand over his body. Look at him while you're standing above him. Can you see his waist? Yes, cats should have a waist. Look at him from the side. Do you see his tummy tucking in a bit? It shouldn't be wobbling around in the breeze (in neutered animals, a slight pouch of loose skin is normal).
For long-haired cats, it may be helpful to wet down their fur in the bathtub to judge their body condition. All that fur can give the illusion that the cat is much heavier than it really is, or provide a great excuse to the owner for why her cat looks fat.
(See the links following this article for an illustrated chart to help you.)
So He's Fat. Is It That Dangerous?
The short answer: YES.
The long answer: a list of known risks. Obese cats have a much higher risk of developing:
*diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes)
*hepatic lipidosis / FLS (a form of liver disease)
*arthritis or other skeletal problems
*lower urinary tract disease ('cystitis')
*problems with anesthetic
But He Doesn't Eat THAT much...
Excess weight is all about eating more calories than the body needs. If your cat is neutered, he uses less calories. If he's a barn cat, he uses a lot more calories. The more active he is, the more calories he needs. Most of us have indoor cats that lay around much of the time. They're not using energy to stay warm; they're not hunting for their food. They don't need to have a big bowl of food laying around to munch on 24 hours a day.
When humans diet, it is often recommended to keep a food diary because we lose track of how much we're really eating. You can lose track of how much your cat is really eating if you free-feed dry and toss treats at him several times a day. Be more conscious of what you're feeding him and remember that an animal that weighs 12 pounds doesn't need to eat all that much. Nor will he think you don't love him anymore if you stop tossing him treats every time you think he's being cute. If you want to show him your love, play with him. Give him some catnip. Spend time interacting with him. Don't equate food with love.
Getting the Weight Off
If your cat is more than a little overweight, the first thing you need to do is make an appointment with your veterinarian. There are a few medical reasons for gross obesity that require veterinary care to fix. Barring a medical problem causing the condition, your vet should monitor your obese cat's health as you restrict calories. Strict dieting can be deadly to obese cats. Do not just drastically cut down on her food and hope the weight will melt off. Obese cats who are suddenly deprived of food are prone to Fatty Liver Syndrome, which can be fatal if untreated. Weight loss should be a gradual process - the natural result of a healthier diet and a more active life.
Most cats are not so grossly obese that they need medical care to supervise their weight loss. Most are simply the result of an unhealthy lifestyle where they consume too many calories, are too inactive, and eat the wrong kinds of food (pretty much just like overweight people). Addressing these problems will result in the weight gradually reducing to a healthy number. Try these tips.
*Buy premium food. Many inexpensive brands don't use quality ingredients and use far too many fillers. The nutrients are not as digestible, thus aren't bioavailable (they just pass right through the system). The cat eats more to compensate.
*Feed portioned meals at regular mealtimes. Cats will eat out of boredom, just like people. They may also compete for food in a multi-cat home. Feed the portion recommended on the food packaging, dividing into two or three feedings daily (barring any medical condition requiring a different feeding schedule). Separate your cats in your multiple-cat household if necessary. Leave the food down for 30-40 minutes, then take it up. You eat meals at mealtime. So can your cat.
*Feed wet food in addition to or instead of dry. Cats are meant to eat meat. Dry foods tend to have far too many carbohydrates (not very digestible) and not nearly enough water and protein. The wet food, high in protein and fat, satisfies the cat's hunger better and is used more efficiently by the body. If your cat likes wet food, feed the wet only. If she isn't all that crazy about it, give her half her calories as dry and half as wet. If you're just starting out, even a quarter of her calories coming from wet food is a start.
*Skip the treats. Food should not be equated with love. Once your cat is down to a healthy weight, an occasional treat is fine, but until then, try using praise, play time, catnip, and other rewards to show how much you enjoy your companion.
*Integrate activities other than eating into the routine. Your cat was made to be an active being - one that hunted for food, competed for territory, stayed safe from predators, stayed warm in the winter, cool in the summer, ranged for mates, and raised young. Now that cats are kept as indoor pets, they need activity to be provided for them. Get some interactive and automated toys for your cat. Play chase with her - get her to chase you from room to room by dragging a cat toy behind you. Get her a big cat tree and hide interesting things such as catnip pieces in it, especially towards the top where she needs to climb to get to. Plant a little container of cat grass and secure it to the top. Be creative, but get her thinking and moving. Playing with your cat reduces stress levels - for both of you!
Keep the Weight Off
Don't get lazy once your cat can actually jump onto the couch without effort. A healthy weight is all about lifestyle. Maintain the feeding regimen, don't start feeding a lot of extra treats, and keep up the activity levels. Spending a little time to get your cat to a healthy weight will help your cat live a longer, happier life.
M. Nikole Hunn is a freelance writer in her spare time, in between coding, tripping over cats, and cleaning hair off the couch.