Let’s face it: Kitties are cuter when they’re chubby. My cat Bubba Lee Kinsey is a couple of pounds overweight, and I love burying my face in his vast expanse of spotted, cream-colored belly floof. At his last checkup, the vet declared my 15-year-old gray tabby to be perfectly healthy, so I haven’t worried about making him exercise away his adorably fuzzy belly.
There is, however, a point at which a cat’s weight can negatively affect her health. At various times in the past seven years, my cat Phoenix has been so overweight that she has struggled to groom herself. Adopting Salvador the kitten last summer has forced Phoenix to be more active and prevented her from gaining more weight, but she still tends to gorge herself at dinnertime. I often wonder whether I could be doing more to help her drop those pesky pounds.
When it comes to losing weight, Skinny the cat is an expert. Veterinarian Brittney Barton of HEAL Veterinary Hospital in Dallas met the now eight-year-old orange tabby in 2012, when Skinny was surrendered to an animal shelter weighing more than 41 pounds. At that time, Barton worked at East Lake Veterinary Hospital, and she volunteered to oversee Skinny’s care, aiming to help him lose weight and trust people again.
“When he first came in, he had some very serious issues with even being touched,” Barton recalls. “He had an overall grumpy demeanor. His body was pretty sore. He couldn’t walk very far. He was not happy at all.”
To kickstart Skinny’s transformation, Barton first limited his calories. Instead of allowing him unrestricted access to a bowl of food, Barton fed him twice a day, utilizing the recommended portions for his size. Barton says the way many people feed cats is problematic, as we incorrectly think all cats are good at self-regulating their consumption.
“We assume they’ll just eat until they’re full and then they’ll be done,” she says. “Half of them might, but the other half won’t. Meal feeding is probably the best way to manage their weight. It’s about the calories in and calories out, just like it is in people.”
In addition to putting Skinny on a diet and calculating his calories, Barton also had to get him moving more. Exercise, she says, is the most challenging part of weight loss for any cat owner, primarily because cats are so stubborn and independent.
“That’s where a lot of people hit up against some trouble,” Barton says. “You can’t make a cat do anything that a cat doesn’t want to do.”
Fortunately, Skinny’s love of food proved enormously useful when trying to persuade the cat to exercise. Barton utilized treat balls and other games that required Skinny to “work” for his food. Moving his dish from place to place also ensured he’d get up and move around before mealtime.
According to Barton, Skinny lost a tremendous amount of weight from the diet and moderate exercise alone, but he hit a plateau around 32 pounds. That’s when Barton got creative. Having recently opened HEAL Veterinary Hospital, Barton saw how Skinny took to the underwater treadmill. It was a success.
“Obviously not every cat is going to be amenable to walking on an underwater treadmill, but he was,” Barton says. “There’s kind of a beautiful thing when cats have a really strong affinity for food. You can leverage that and give them positive reinforcement for things they wouldn’t like normally. Once we got him into his daily underwater treadmill sessions, he started dropping weight like crazy.”
Last May, Skinny hit his weight loss goal, officially dropping half his weight. Today, the cat weighs between 17 and 18 pounds — “and he looks great,” Barton adds. She recalls the “landmark day” when Skinny, formerly unable to stand for more than a few minutes, was finally able to jump onto her couch. As he has regained his health, he has also become more affectionate, active — and crafty.
“I’m constantly locking food up and trying to find out new places to put it, because he can jump higher and higher,” Barton says. “He can climb up on ledges and get into all sorts of stuff. He’s a strong, cool personality. He has his own individuality.”
Today, when he’s not at home with Barton and her family, Skinny spends most of his time as the resident cat at HEAL Veterinary Hospital, which Barton says keeps him from “being a couch potato.” Regular human interaction also keeps him active and helps him maintain his weight.
“When he was holding that weight, he was in one place and he hardly moved at all,” Barton says. “To see him have his ability to move and go and do unlocked as the weight came off was awesome. His personality bloomed. You can just tell how much happier he is.”
All photos courtesy of Skinny’s Facebook page, where you can get regular updates on his progress.
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About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her three cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey, Phoenix, and Salvador.