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Obesity in Cats



Overview

Prevalence

Clinical Signs

Causes

Diagnosis

Risks

Treatment

Prevention

Prognosis

One Last Note

Overview

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Obesity has become an epidemic in pet cats. Many owners do not realize that their cat is overweight or obese or do not fully comprehend the medical risk of obesity.

Prevalence

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Obesity is extremely common in pet cats. It is not confined to any particular sex or breed. Younger, more active cats tend to have fewer problems with obesity, but there are certainly young cats that are overweight or obese.

Clinical Signs

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Cats defined as overweight would show the following signs:

  • Their ribs are not easily palpable with a moderate covering of fat
  • Their waist is not defined
  • Their abdomen is obviously rounded
  • They have a moderately large abdominal fat pad

Cat defined as obese would show the following signs:

  • Their ribs are not palpable under a heavy covering of fat
  • They have heavy fat deposits on the back, face, and/or limbs
  • The abdomen is distended with no waist
  • They have a large abdominal fat pad

Causes

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There are usually multiple factors at the root of obesity.

  1. Low activity level
  2. Overly caloric diets
  3. Unrestricted amounts of food being offered (free choice/free feeding)
  4. Inherent or acquired low metabolism
  5. Medical illness (extremely rare)

Diagnosis

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When a cat is seen at Cat Hospital of Chicago, it is given a Body Condition Score (BCS). The BCS is a number scored out of nine and depends on the cat's physical appearance. An ideal score is five out of nine. An overweight cat will be given a score of six to seven. An obese cat will be given a score of eight to nine.

Risks

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Overweight and obese cats are at a much higher risk of many diseases including diabetes mellitus, feline lower urinary tract disease, hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), arthritis, cancer, and heart and respiratory diseases. They are a higher surgical and anesthetic risk. They become even less active as they gain weight. They have grooming problems and often develop matting and dander problems. In general, their overall quality of life is compromised.

Treatment

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It is vital that an appropriate diet and feeding amount be determined by your cat's veterinarian. Simply switching to a lighter food is usually not enough to facilitate weight loss in most cats. Your veterinarian can discuss the best diet or diets for your cat and then determine the cat's caloric needs and amounts of food to feed.

You may also need to alter your current feeding practices. Many cats are fed on a free choice or free feed system in which unmeasured amounts of food are always available. Restricting the amount of food is critical to weight loss success. This can be challenging, especially in a multiple cat household. Meal feeding is the most precise and usually most successful way of getting cats to and then maintaining an ideal body weight. We recommend a slow transition from free feeding to measured/meal feeding over several weeks to months. Make sure each cat has his or her own bowl - they may not feed from it exclusively at first, but that will hopefully change as the next several steps are taken. Start by picking up the food for several hours each day - many people start by picking up the food when they leave for work and putting it back down when they get home. Over several weeks to months reduce the time that the food is available. You may want to consider feeding different cats in separate areas or rooms at least at first. During this process the cat or cats will start to realize that the food will not just always be available and over time they will start to eat the food when it is put down. The goal is to put down two or three measured amounts of food per day for each cat and to have them eat each portion completely within five to ten minutes. Another advantage to meal feeding is that you will know immediately if a cat is not eating and be able to get that cat more timely veterinary care.

Occasionally owners try the above transition and are not successful transitioning all the cats to the meal feeding system. Most of the time it is the normal or underweight cats that resist the transition and want to continue free feeding. In this case we try to devise a system in which the overweight or obese cat can be meal fed while the normal or underweight cats can free feed. Options to deal with this situation include:

  • Feeding the overweight cat on the ground, but feeding the normal or underweight cats on an elevated surface like a counter or dresser. This works especially well for overweight or obese cats that can't jump well or just prefer not to.
  • Purchase or build your own a Kitty CafĂ©. This is essentially a large cardboard box with a hole cut in it that only the normal or underweight cats can fit through. Prefabricated Kitty Cafes can be purchased here.

Other recommendations to promote weight loss:

  • Try feeding dry food in a treat ball -this can be purchased where cat toys are sold. It is essentially a hollow ball with a hole in it. The food is poured into the hole and then the ball is placed on the floor. The cat has to push the ball around to get the food to come out. This will force the cat to move and slow down his or her eating. You may need to help your cat understand this system - demonstrate for your cat that when you turn the ball, food comes out. You may need to do this a lot in the beginning until he or she understands it.
  • Use a measuring scoop or cup to measure dry food - don't just guess! It is very easy to overestimate amounts of food!
  • Try getting smaller bowls. Even if it doesn't help your cat psychologically, it may help you to see a full bowl each time you feed your cat.
  • Try playing fetch with your cat's food - toss several pieces down the hall. This will also get him or her moving and prolong the dining experience.
  • Try hiding the food in different locations. Some cats like this because it simulates hunting.
  • When your cat begs or vocalizes for extra food, give them attention in other ways: play with them, brush them, or hold them on your lap. Do not feed him or her as that would be a reward for begging.

Prevention

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Free fed dry foods play a major role in the obesity epidemic. Cats tend to overeat as they graze on these foods. Many times owners don't realize that their cats are overeating because this feeding pattern can be deceptive - it may look like their cats are hardly eating anything when they are actually eating all day and sometimes all night. Meal feeding, or at least measured feeding, starting from an early age can prevent bad eating habits like overeating. General recommendations are available on all foods, or your veterinarian can help you with recommendations.

Prognosis

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Obesity is a highly treatable disease with an excellent prognosis is most cases. The biggest factor is owner involvement. Without a firm commitment from the cat's family and caretakers, successful weight loss is rare.

One Last Note

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Some owners are hesitant to pick up the food and/or to transition to meal feeding because they feel bad that their cats don't have food available when they want it; some worry that their "cat will starve." This really is needless anxiety. Cats, just like people, do not need to have food available at all times. Just as people tend to eat in meals, so can cats. And just as people who snack a lot between meals are more likely to have weight issues, cats that eat all day (and night) long tend to gain weight. There should be more owner anxiety knowing that their overweight cat's health is in jeopardy and if left untreated will likely result in one or more chronic illnesses requiring long-term treatment and monitoring - and more trips to the vet!



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