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Weight Management in Cats

Clinical Signs
Risks/Complications Associated with Obesity in Cats
Normal Feline Feeding Behavior and How Knowledge of This Behavior May Aid in Obesity Prevention
Prognosis and Conclusion

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. It is the most common form of malnutrition we see today. There is heightened concern in veterinary medicine about the increasing percentage of domestic cats that can be classified as obese.

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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 certainly are 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 visibly rounded
  • They have a moderately large abdominal fat pad

Cats 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
  • Their body weight is in excess of 15-20% higher than the ideal physiological weight of the individual

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There are often multiple factors contributing to obesity in cats:

  • Low activity level/sedentary lifestyle
  • Overly caloric diets
  • Inherent or acquired low metabolism. Many cat owners are surprised at how little food it actually takes to maintain the weight of a cat, even a larger or 'big boned' cat, and especially if the activity level of the cat is low. Consequently, overfeeding is the primary cause of obesity in the pet cat population.
  • Behavior causes, such as anxiety or depression, along with environmental and lifestyle influences such as boredom and lack of mental stimulation, all of which may lead to overeating.
  • Medical illness (rare)

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Every cat seen at Cat Hospital of Chicago is given a Body Condition Score (BCS). The BCS is a number scored out of nine and is based on the cat's physical appearance and the signs noted above. 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/Complications Associated with Obesity in Cats
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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 and, as studies in dogs have shown, their lives are often shortened.

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At the most basic level, preventing obesity in cats involves improving owner understanding of natural feline behavior and improving the accuracy of communication between owners and their cats.

One of the keys to preventing as well as treating obesity in cats is to assure that they lead active lives. Outdoor cats in general have more opportunity to express their natural behaviors and to get frequent exercise, both mental and physical. However, the great outdoors can be dangerous for domestic cats as well, putting them at risk of being harmed by moving vehicles, animal cruelty, wildlife, etc. Therefore, since many cats now reside primarily indoors, it is critical that owners take the necessary steps to make sure that their indoor cat(s) have the freedom to express most of their natural behaviors even in the indoor, or closely supervised outdoor, environment. It may take thought and creativity, but your cat will appreciate your efforts and it will most definitely improve his quality of life and likely enhance the human-animal bond as well.

Free fed dry foods, which often contain a high amount of carbohydrates, can play a major role in the obesity epidemic, especially if not enough energy is expended to warrant the calories consumed. Cats tend to overeat as they graze on these foods. Many times owners do not realize that their cats are overeating because this feeding pattern can be deceptive,  it may look like their cats are hardly eating anything (because they eat very little at each visit to the bowl) when they are actually eating all day and sometimes all night. Meal feeding, or at least measured feeding, ideally several times daily, 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.

Normal Feline Feeding Behavior and How Knowledge of This Behavior May Aid in Obesity Prevention
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Eating is a social activity for people and cat owners commonly believe that they can best bond with their cat by rewarding them with food or treats and going through 'feeding rituals' every day as many of us do. Feeding, however, is not a social activity for cats, but rather a basic need only. Play is actually much more likely to be an effective social facilitator in feline circles. (Think about cats in the wild). Most cats will voluntarily spend more time in the company of their owners when they feel they are in control of the interaction (basically allowing them to behave in ways that are natural for cats in general, taking into account each individual cat's own likes and dislikes). Owners tend to enjoy the feeding ritual, but even an every-day seemingly 'happy' feeding routine can be stressful for cats if individual cats are forced into a social context with cats outside their social group in order to have access to food. Many owners also have an unfounded fear that if there is no feeding ritual, the human-animal bond will break. Food has no social value at all for the cat, however. Eliminating the feeding ritual and redirecting owner-cat interaction to play or other forms of attention is often a good start in treating and preventing obesity, though admittedly easier said than done!

Some veterinary behaviorists have found that by paying attention to the behavioral needs of the cat, it is possible for owners to maximize their cat's calorie output but also establish self-control of food intake. Physical exercise and mental stimulation are both important aspects of this behavioral approach to prevention of feline obesity and maximizing these activities not only decreases the risk of behavior disorders associated with anxiety and insecurity and health problems associated with stress (urinary, pancreatic, etc.), but also helps to maintain a healthy balance between energy output and expenditure with calories consumed.

All cats have very basic requirements that need to be met in order for them to maintain an appropriate balance between caloric intake and energy expenditure. These requirements include having a safe or 'core' territory (meaning that this area is frequented only by this cat or by other cats in this cat's social group). In a multi-cat home, close owner observation of inter-cat behaviors will help to accurately determine which cats are in each social group (if more than one). Tactile communication (i.e., communication by touch) only occurs between members of the same social group. Thus, identifying the presence or absence of these tactile behaviors (nose-to-nose touching, mutual grooming or licking, mutual rubbing, play wrestling) will help owners to identify feline social groups in the home. Remember that each social group should have its own 'core territory' where comfortable access is available to all members of the social group. Feeding, water and litter stations should be available in each core territory. Just because cats live in the same home does not mean that they are in the same social group! Cats in their natural state do not share important resources between social groups and yet in multi-cat households, cats are regularly expected to share resting places, feeding locations, and litter boxes even though their social behavior indicates that they consider themselves casual housemates only and not members of the same 'group'.

Additionally, the core territory is also an area where members can hunt (or hunt through play, i.e., stimulate hunting behavior by offering the cat the opportunity to practice the sequence of eyeing, stalking and pouncing), mark (hopefully in owner-friendly ways, such as scratching posts), sleep, eat, drink, eliminate, observe (think heights, cubby holes, etc.), groom, and explore without threat from members of other social groups. The size of the territory may vary from an entire house (if only one social group) to one bedroom, but in all cases, the core territory requirements outlined above should be met. If a cat must leave his core territory to perform the vital functions of eating, drinking and eliminating, or has no appropriate marking surfaces, hiding places, observation posts, toys, etc. in his territory, the result is a stressed cat with resulting behavioral problems, including improper utilization of nutrients and obesity.

Most owners find it interesting to learn that the feeding process for cats living in the natural habitat outdoors takes 6-8 hours out of every day. That is an important factor in the 'time budget' of the cat, as well as its balance of energy. Feeding your cat multiple (4-8) small meals throughout the day more closely mimics the cat's natural feeding behavior even if he does not have to expend as much energy to find and capture that food.

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Treatment for overweight cats starts with a basic understanding of normal feline behavior as outlined above. Once weight problems exist, however, dietary changes are usually required as well.

It is important that an appropriate diet and feeding amount be determined by your cat's veterinarian. Simply switching to a lighter (lower calorie) food is usually not enough to facilitate needed 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 direct you to sources that will enable you to best calculate the 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. This works well if the cat is active and maintains a moderately high metabolism, and if he self regulates his quantity of intake. If not, however, 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 reach and then to maintain ideal body weight. Having said that, however, it is important to note that the cat's digestive system is not designed to take in 50% of the daily ration in one sitting, so dividing the daily ration into three to four or more feedings is ideal. 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 at each meal, all the while increasing the number of meals. You may want to consider feeding different cats in separate areas or rooms at least initially, if this does not cause undue anxiety with the cats. During this process the cat or cats will start to realize that the food will not always be available and over time they will start to eat the food when it is put down.

Initially, the cat's total daily ration of calories should be determined. The total amount should then be divided into at least two, and if possible three or more meals throughout the day. The goal is to have the cat eat each portion (i.e., each meal) completely within 10-60 minutes.

Another advantage to meal feeding is that you will recognize immediately if a cat is not eating and be able to get that cat more timely veterinary care.

Remember the golden rule of having a separate feeding station for each social group of cats in the home. Keep this in mind as well as dietary needs and likes/dislikes if separating cats to feed them.

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 24/7 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 address this situation include:

  • Feeding the overweight cat on the ground, but feeding the normal or underweight cats on an elevated surface, such as a counter or dresser.  This works especially well for overweight or obese cats that either can't jump well or prefer not to do so.
  • Building your own 'Kitty Caf'. This is essentially a large cardboard box with a hole cut in it that only the normal or underweight cats can fit through. There are websites where information can be found on purchase and/or construction of simple to more complex boxes, as well as electromagnetic doors that prevent cat entry to specific areas or feeding stations. One such website is www.meowspace.biz  On this website is a description of a clear, ventilated enclosure with a magnetic locking pet door. Pets wearing a small magnet on their collars can enter and have unrestricted access to their food.

Other recommendations to promote weight loss and help keep your cat active and mentally stimulated include:

  • Provide plenty of toys for your cat. Whether store-bought or simple items in your home, toys will get your cat moving and help burn extra calories. Anything that cats can bat around, carry, chase, capture, roll, pounce on, toss in the air or bite will help keep your cat active and healthy.  Cats are particularly attracted to toys with rapid and unpredictable movement (this is a strong stimulator of their sensory system), high pitched sound, and small 'prey' size.  Popular toys include:
    • Fishing pole-type toys (sticks or wands with a dangling toy)
    • Catnip toys (socks, pillows, balls)
    • Cat Dancer (a flexible wire with a lure on the end)
    • Crumpled balls of paper (not tin foil). When possible, toss up or down stairs or along ledges to incorporate an element of agility.
    • Plastic rings from milk or orange juice jugs
    • Ping-pong balls
    • Socks stuffed with cotton balls (include some catnip!) and tied at the end
    • Other foraging toys (slimcat, phatcat, cat activity boards, peppilino, etc.)
  • Offer your cat a nice variety of toys. Not all store-bought toys are safe, however. Avoid ones that are small enough for a cat to swallow and those with yarn, strings, buttons, small bells or other little parts that cats can chew off and swallow. And like children, cats will tire of their toys. To keep your cat from getting bored with them, don't leave the toys out all the time and regularly alternate the ones your kitty is allowed to play with. Some cats are self-starters when it comes to play. Other 'couch potato' types may need more direct owner involvement (such as coaxing and patience, don't give up too soon!). Aim for 8-10 five minute play/aerobic sessions per day.
  • Go vertical! Cat trees and wall-mounted perches and catwalks give indoor cats lots of climbing exercise. Be sure they are safe, sturdy and secure.
  • Make cats 'work' (though it is 'play' in their eyes!) for their food. Feed dry food in a treat ball.  These can be purchased at Cat Hospital of Chicago or where cat toys are sold. It is essentially a hollow ball with a hole in it. Pieces of dry kibble are placed into the hole in the ball 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 (enhancing the cat 'feeling full' prior to overeating). 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 several times initially until he or she understands it.
  • Puzzle feeders
  • Play fetch with your cat's food. Toss several pieces down the hall, one at a time. This will also get him or her moving and prolong the dining experience. Just as importantly, most cats will find this entertaining and fun! Exercise and play is mentally challenging and is important in preventing boredom and the stresses associated with boredom.
  • Hide the food (or at least a portion of the daily ration) in different locations. Some cats like this because it stimulates hunting.This mimics the cat's need for exploration to find a food source, as well as the time-consuming nature of the consumption of food as a daily activity in the natural life of a cat.
  • Use a measuring scoop or cup to measure dry food, don't just guess! It is very easy to overestimate amounts of food when owners feed 'a handful'.
  • Get 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.
  • Consider controlled access feeders, including those with ice pack compartments for wet food eaters. (Food stays cool in the feeder for several hours and does not spoil)
  • When your cat begs or vocalizes for extra food, give him or her attention in other ways: play with him, brush him, or hold him on your lap (only if your cat enjoys this, not all cats are lap cats!). Do not feed him or her as that would be a reward for begging. The objective here is to reward your cat with non-food forms of attention when he or she begs, so he or she will eventually learn that food is not the end result of begging, but that love and affection or play is.
  • Change the location of feeding stations periodically, while maintaining awareness of social group core territory requirements. Cats in the natural setting do not repeatedly eat in the same location.
  • Most cats are curious about anything new in their environment, including something as simple as an empty cardboard box. Consider feeding or playing with your cat in a newly-acquired cardboard box. Then turn the box upside down and punch holes in it with food or a small toy just to switch things around a bit and provide a mental challenge for your cat.
  • Consider outdoor stimulation options (enclosures, walks on a harness, yes, most cats can be trained to tolerate a harness!, buggy rides, bird feeders near windows, window perches, etc.)
  • Consider clicker training your cat, it's great mental stimulation. Visit www.clickertraining.com or see our Cat Hospital of Chicago spring, 2011 newsletter article on clicker training in cats in the Library section of our website www.cathospitalofchicago.com.
  • Visit www.petobesityprevention.com for additional ideas and information

Prognosis and Conclusion
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Obesity is a highly treatable disease with an excellent prognosis in most cases. The biggest factor is owner involvement. Without a firm commitment from the cat's family and caretakers, successful weight loss is rare. Owner involvement starts with assuring that all cats in the home lead a full and active life with freedom to comfortably behave in ways that are natural to the cat, all the while monitoring that calories consumed versus energy expended is resulting in a happy cat at a healthy weight.

As our understanding of feline behavior advances, it is believed by some behaviorists that most cats, if able to live relatively stress-free (as defined by the cat!) in an area where they can safely and securely behave and act as cats in their natural habitat do, they will remain active and mentally stimulated, and at the same time self-regulate their food intake, even when food is available at all times, especially if this lifestyle begins when they are young.

It is admittedly a challenge to try to maintain a healthy body weight for our indoor-residing feline friends, as well as to keep them appropriately mentally and physically stimulated, recognizing and respecting their social groups, and allowing 'cats to be cats'  but doing so will help us all to appreciate the charm, inquisitiveness, and beauty of the feline species and all that they do to enrich our lives, because they are cats and they don't pretend to be anything else.

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