Everywhere around us are claims that obesity is becoming more prevalent in the human members of virtually every society. The fight against childhood obesity has made it to the White House and has grabbed headlines everywhere. We are told that obesity threatens to shorten our lives and bankrupt our nation.
Paralleling this trend, we are told by pet food marketers and talking heads, is an epidemic in feline obesity. Our cats are growing fat just as we are, and their health obesity-related problems mirror ours with remarkable precision. But is this true, or is it hype?
Measuring obesity and obesity rates is no simple task. I have seen estimates that the obesity rate in cats exceeds 50 percent, but I have not seen explanations of the methodology of the studies that produced that figure.
However, I have had my hands on plenty of cats every work day for the last 13 years, and I’ve been taking note of how many are obese. I’m going to go ahead and lay my cards on the table when it comes to the rate of obesity in cats: It is high, but it does not appear to me to be increasing. There are plenty of fat cats out there, but since the day I started practicing there always have been plenty of fat cats out there. In my opinion, the obesity rate in cats has reached its natural plateau.
Cats get fat for a simple reason: Food is not scarce for owned cats in developed countries. I have spent plenty of time traveling in places like Guatemala and Laos where many cats aren’t owned, and even those that have owners aren’t cared for in any way that would be considered acceptable by the standards of a developed country. Cats in those countries are plentiful and generally on the verge of starvation. They must hunt or scavenge for each meal. The species’ strategy is straightforward: Live by one’s wits, scrounge meals when one can, reproduce as quickly and furiously as possible and then succumb to starvation, predation, trauma, or infectious disease. Out with the old, in with the new. Life, with apologies to Hobbes, is nasty, brutish, and short.
In developed countries, human intervention turns this strategy on its head. Food is readily available. Reproduction isn’t a part of most house cats’ lives; nor are trauma, infectious disease, predation, and starvation. Life is good. And for many cats it is almost too good — obesity ensues. There are plenty of calories available, and no need to burn them.
The consequences of feline obesity do, in fact, mirror those of human obesity up to a point. The most striking of the similarities is diabetes. Overweight cats are prone to insulin resistance, which leads to chronically high blood glucose levels. Over time the disease takes an incredible toll on the body. The disease is notoriously difficult to manage. Even with dedicated and diligent owners, diabetic cats have substantially shorter life spans than their non-diabetic counterparts.
Obesity also exacerbates many other feline health problems. Obesity alone does not cause kidney failure or heart failure in cats, but it significantly exacerbates these conditions. It also contributes to symptoms of asthma. It may interfere with grooming, leading to skin infections and bladder infections. It exacerbates the mobility problems caused by arthritis. A period of stress in an overweight cat can trigger a serious metabolic condition called hepatic lipidosis.
Sadly, obesity in cats can be hard to address. An overweight dog can be fed less and walked more. Cats, however, seem to have the ability to ramp down their metabolisms to maintain their body weights as they are fed less. And (with some exceptions) they generally aren’t terribly thrilled about being connected to a leash and taken for a stroll.
However, there are tactics that can be used to help overweight cats lose weight and to prevent obesity in the first place. The first step is to eliminate the all-day, all-you-can-eat buffet. Some cats moderate their food intake and hit the food bowl only as needed. But others — the ones who are at risk of becoming overweight — will over-indulge. The at-risk cats are best fed measured quantities of food. Those who attempt to drive their owners crazy with begging can be fed from automatic feeders, so that the owners aren’t viewed (and harassed) as the source of food.
Increasing cats’ activity is more possible than most people believe. Laser pointers and feathers on strings are fun for all and readily available. People living in houses with multiple floors can place the food as far from the living area as possible so that cats must climb stairs and walk through the house to eat. Cats in apartments can be fed a portion at a time on opposite sides of the dwelling. Food can be placed on high surfaces so that cats must climb for their meals. Simply put: Make your cat get off the sofa if he or she wants to eat.
The type of food offered also is likely to make a difference. Low calorie foods are less fattening. And a growing amount of research indicates that low carbohydrate diets are less likely to lead to obesity and its concomitant metabolic problems. However, don’t be lured by the notion that a “species appropriate” diet alone will be a panacea. In nature, cats eat species appropriate diets and these diets very likely are less fattening than the carb-loaded cat foods on supermarket shelves. But remember that in nature (i.e., Guatemala and Laos) cats also are perpetually on the verge of starvation. Any diet, fed in excess, can lead to obesity. There is no easy road away from obesity in any species. In the long run it invariably boils down to calories consumed versus calories expended.
Finally, before implementing a weight management program, remember that it’s important to know whether your cat’s weight is healthy or not. Your vet should be able to answer that question if you have any doubts about it.
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)
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