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Cats & Obesity: What You Need To Know

Updated: Dec 14, 2023



Obese cats seem to be the new norm.


And it is said to be one of the most common and preventable diseases.

An estimated 30-35% of the general cat population is obese.


Cats tend to be seen as lazy, and self-sufficient.. Left to do their own thing, and even left alone for days at a time with an unlimited food supply.


The truth is, cats rely on their humans to keep them healthy.


And when they get feed a carbohydrate rich, overly processed diet, along with not getting enough exercise... We are doing them a disservice.


Do keep in mind; obesity is not always due to overfeeding a poor quality food. Certain diseases and metabolic conditions can play a role as well.



What are some Complications of obesity?

  • Diabetes

  • Joint Issues and arthritis

  • Decreased life span

  • Heart disease

  • Chronic inflammation

  • Anesthetic complications

  • Intolerance to heat

  • Tumors

  • High blood pressure

  • Cancer

  • Death


Obviously, obesity is not cute. It is damaging to a pet's health in more ways than not.


 

How do I know if my cat is overweight?


Some obvious signs would be:

  • Wheezing & trouble breathing

  • Poor hair coat with matting, and greasy patches

  • Limping

  • Inability to groom or clean their back end

  • Sagging belly


The need to assess overall BCS.


We are so used to seeing overweight pets that it can be difficult to evaluate the true level obesity at times

A cat's BCS or Body Condition Score is a tool used to determine overall body fat, and it can be evaluated pretty easily at home.

You should be able to easily feel and count their ribs as you run your fingers across the side of their chest. You should not be able to see them.

If it is difficult to feel them, and you have to apply a firm amount of pressure, this indicates there is too much fat on their body.


Upon looking them from the side, your cat should have a prominent 'tummy tuck' and when viewed from above, they should have an hourglass figure.

Meaning, there is a tight upward slant of the belly from their ribs to their pelvis, and their waist should be cinched.

If their belly is hanging low, or bulges, and they look primarily round or sausage like.. This indicates they are too fat.


The average cat generally weighs about 8-10 pounds.


*Image courtesy of WSAVA




What can I do to help my cat lose weight?


I get asked every once in awhile on helping cats lose weight.


But, this is where it gets tricky.

Cats, as I always say, are particularly sensitive!

Especially when it comes to weight loss.


First:

I always recommend increasing exercise. This can be done by allowing the cat to 'hunt' for their food by treat puzzles.



Laser pointers, and feather chasers are also highly recommended!

If you really want to get active and adventurous, train your cat to walk on a leash!


Cats should get at least 20-30 minutes of exercise per day. This can be done in intervals if you'd like.


Second:

A calorie adjustment or addressing food changes.


Calculating metabolic needs, carbohydrate/protein/fat content of the food and adjusting intake amount is all very important in a weight loss plan.


Cats, by nature, are obligate carnivores. Meaning they get their sole nutrition from meat. We want to aim for high protein, a good amount of fat, and low carb. Cats do not need carbohydrates.


Decreasing the food amount will entirely depend on the overall calorie and nutrient content of that food.




As you can see, these 2 foods have a 100 calorie difference per cup.

Also notice the above differences in protein, fat and moisture.


I did an estimated calculation of the carbohydrates in both foods:

  • Top- roughly contains 39%.

  • Bottom- roughly contains 29%.

You can find how to calculate this number HERE.


It's obvious, that the higher the fat, protein and moisture content of the food, the lower the carbohydrates will be.

Occasionally, by switching your cat to a higher protein, higher fat diet it will actually increase the total calories.. but, since those calories are not from processed grains, it would be appropriate.


Adding in wet food can help tremendously, while decreasing dry.

One might also consider switch their cat to a raw food or homemade diet.

Increasing overall moisture in a cat's diet is critical for full body health, including metabolism.


By lowering the amount of dry food, we are lowering the total intake of processed carbohydrates, and cutting calories.

*We must be careful not to fall below the recommended feeding guideline, or nutrient deficiency can occur. Ultimately making weight loss harder.

Since most cats are simply overfed, we can try decreasing food to begin if they are on a kibble based diet.


One last thing we can do to assist in weight loss is to increase the amount of fiber in the diet to help the cat feel full, which can also decrease begging as we cut down on calories and overall food intake. This can be added separately, or a food with a high fiber content can be fed. Fiber helps to slow down digestion and also maintain steady blood glucose levels.


 

I free feed my cat, do I need to switch to scheduled meal times?


Feeding scheduled meals is highly encouraged, as opposed to leaving food out all day. This allows you to keep an eye on the total amount consumed, and adjust as needed.

It also prevent pets from eating out of boredom.


If you do free feed, follow these tips:

  • Placing food bowls far away from the cat's main living area will help by encouraging them by encouraging more movement, and getting more exercise on the way.

  • Do NOT keep refilling the bowl. Give a set amount per day and when it's gone, it's gone.

Since kibble is sprayed with palatable agents to make it smell and taste better, this can lead to cats overeating. Monitoring the amount food being eaten is important.



Is restricting my cat's food dangerous?


It can be. If we restrict a cat's food too much or fast them, their body can break down fat too quickly and they can develop a condition called Hepatic Lipidosis.


This can be life threatening, and even fatal if not treated promptly. Cats can die from this condition within a few days.


Shortly put: when a cat's body breaks down fat, triglycerides get stored in the liver and can lead to obstructive functioning, and essentially fatty liver disease.


This, like many ailments, can also be brought on by other medical conditions as well; but most commonly it is a sudden onset of anorexia. Which is why it is always important to address a cat's unwillingness to eat right away, and not fast them for weight loss.


Always be sure your cat is eating and drinking normally. And if they are not, seek

medical attention right away.


A specialized diet plan must be in place for weight loss, with close monitoring, and frequent weigh-ins.

 

Should I feed my cat a prescription weight loss food?


While simply cutting back on the current food can be an option for some, sometimes a complete change in diet is needed.


I like to take all factors into consideration to make sure they are getting a complete and proper diet for optimized health.


I am not here to go against your veterinarian's advice and say you shouldn't feed a prescription diet, but I will share this:


While I personally don't agree with them, prescription diets are sometimes needed, to start. They are not meant to be a long term solution. In fact, prescription veterinary diets do NOT need to meet AFFCO nutrient requirements, meaning they are not "complete and balanced."


If your vet recommends a prescription diet, it is your right as your pet's owner to accept or decline.

I encourage you to do research, ask questions, and explore alternatives if you wish.


In my personal experience, I have declined using prescription diets for my dog. I have successfully remediated problems naturally, with a high quality 'alternative' diet and supplements. You can read that post HERE.


The trouble I have with these prescription diets, is the ingredients.

...And don't even get me started on the price!


Take this prescription weight loss food for example:


  • Corn Gluten Meal

  • Wheat Gluten

  • Soybean Meal

  • Poultry By-Product

  • Oat Fiber

  • Soy Protein

  • Rice

  • Fish Meal


This is NOT an appropriate diet for a carnivore, especially an obligate carnivore like cats.


Now, I also did some calculations with NRC and AAFCO guidelines to find out the exact nutrient content of this food.


I'm very concerned with the fat amount being SO low.


Fat is EXTREMELY important for metabolic processes, and energy requirements.


Fats are also essential to cell structure and nervous system function, among so many other things. It is where the term ESSENTIAL Fatty Acids comes from.


This food states it is 6% fat.


The bare minimum to sustain an adult cat is 9% on a dry matter basis per AAFCO guidelines.


The better rated NRC guidelines on moderate fat content would be double, to even triple this number in order for optimal levels to be met in the adult cat.


The grain content is just as disturbing.

4 out of the first 8 ingredients are grains and 2 are soy.

*Find out why I avoid soy at all costs HERE.


Although this food says high protein, we must take into account what KIND of protein it contains. Where is it coming from? What's the source?

Remember, companies are not required to disclose this information, nor are they required to use animal protein over plant based protein. You must figure this out yourself.


Unfortunately, the protein they use here isn't optimal.


Wheat actually contains 75-80% of the plant protein in the form of gluten.

Corn gluten meal is 60% protein.

Soybean meal is 50% protein.

Pretty tricky huh?


This creates a deficient diet, critically lacking in essential amino acids.

We must aim for a true animal based protein diet that a carnivore thrives on.

As stated above, a raw diet can help achieve this goal.



 

Are grains really that bad?


As stated initially in this post; carnivores should not eat a grain based diet. Especially to cats, a meatless diet can be fatal.


In fact, I firmly believe grain-based diets to be a primary cause of obesity in pets today, among other health problems.


Clearly, the company, and the veterinary industry as a whole knows this.

Why? Because this food is marketed as high protein, low carbohydrate!



A quote from the VCA states:

"Some weight loss diets, such as Purina Proplan OM® and Royal Canin® Calorie Control, are high protein, low carbohydrate, others such as Royal Canin® Satiety and Hills® Prescription Diet w/d have high fiber content to help the cat feel more full and stop begging for food. Some newer weight loss diets, such as Hills® Prescription Diet Metabolic, use specific nutrients that can promote increased metabolism, helping cats burn calories more quickly."

After this, they state:

"Since cats are obligate carnivores (meaning they eat meat out of biological necessity), many cats will lose weight more effectively on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet for this reason."

So, why are these same companies pushing for grains in pet food? Saying it's healthy and a good source of energy? If they know it is biologically inappropriate and contributes to obesity?


We know grains are fed to livestock for finishing.. The primary goal being to fatten them up.

What would make in any different for our cats?


And lets face it, even ruminants are not supposed to eat a grain heavy diet. It can actually cause several digestive problems, and a change in their microbiome!


VCA then goes on to say:

"It is not appropriate to simply reduce the volume of their current food. This will cause malnourishment over time."

In my opinion, if a cat is overweight on their current food, it means:

  1. They are being fed too much, in which cutting back would be appropriate OR

  2. The food is too high in carbohydrates and we need to make a diet change.

But to simply say that decreasing the current food is 'not appropriate' without even addressing the current diet, makes it sound like they just want to sell their over priced, prescription food.

And malnourished? Remember, that the prescription food pictured above is so low in fat, it does not even meet the already bare minimum of AAFCO standards.


Lastly, veterinarians don't usually take the time to calculate your cat's metabolic needs, look at their current food, ask about or recommend exercise, adjust their current intake, etc.


It is all too common for them to simply suggest a prescription food, and send you on your way. If your vet DOES take the extra time with you to evaluate all these areas: Awesome!! But I have personally not seen this happen.

 

What else can I do? If you are concerned about your cats weight, it is advised to get some support to help with the process and monitor their food intake and weight loss accordingly.


Hey, that's me! *Image courtesy of Today's Veterinary Practice


Frequent weigh-ins are recommended, preferably every 2-3 weeks while on a weight loss plan.

If significant progress is not seen within 3 months, we should re-evaluate our game plan.


Making proper dietary adjustments is crucial. As stated above, cutting back on food may not be the complete answer. We must take all factors into consideration, and closely monitor the right amount of weight loss per month, as well as create an appropriate exercise program for your cat's needs.


At home tracking and monitoring sheets are very important to have when keeping tabs on all of this (I include these with each weight loss plan)!


Do keep in mind; for a very obese cat to safely lose the proper amount of weight, it can take over 6 months. And adjustments may need to be made along the way. This should be done under the careful guidance of a professional.


If other concerns are noted or weight loss is difficult, we should explore other tests to rule out certain medical conditions.


It is our duty as pet owners to spot problems and seek help when needed, to avoid the suffering of our pets. We must take accountability, and employ action steps when these problems arise.

They need to be addressed, in order for them to be resolved, beginning with the diet.



Preventing Obesity:


The tips stated above not only apply to helping your cat lose weight effectively, but also prevent obesity. Maintaining a good exercise regimen and feeding a high quality diet are essential to keeping a cat healthy!


"The food you eat can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine, or the slowest form of poison."

-Ann Wigmore


Learn more about the importance of proper nutrition and get your cat on the road to a healthy weight here.


 

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