Introduction: Obesity in pets has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. It is now the most common nutritional problem seen in pets. Overweight cats are unhealthy, and they face a variety of weight-related diseases. They often live a shorter, less healthy life. Pet owners can control what the pet eats, when it exercises, and ultimately, its weight.

Why are Cats Overweight: In todayís society, the tendency is to exercise less and eat more. This is unfortunately true for many of our pets. Some pet owners may even go to the extreme of replacing attention and exercise for their pet with food rewards and treats. This only compounds the problem for an overweight pet.

Although insufficient exercise and excess calorie consumption are the major causes of obesity, there are other factors that can contribute to a petís weight gain. Highly palatable pet foods have high fat levels that can rapidly add on the pounds. Boredom and anxiety can cause a pet to want to eat continually. This is a problem if the cat has access to food all day long. Other cats suffer from medical conditions that can lead to weight gain. Like people, older pets tend to need less calories to maintain weight. Finally, spayed and neutered cats have a tendency to gain weight more easily than their intact counterparts.

Why an Overweight Pet is Unhealthy: Obese animals can have a number of weight related illnesses. There is extra stress on the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and other body organs. Fat animals are more likely to suffer from cardiac disease, respiratory problems, digestive disorders, and high blood pressure. Their joints, ligaments, tendons, and bones suffer from excess wear and tear, so they often endure arthritis, joint injuries, leg problems, and back ailments. They are at greater risk during anesthesia and surgery. Overheating, skin disease, flatulence, constipation, and reproductive problems are common complaints. Obese animals are prone to life threatening chronic diseases such as diabetes, pancreatitis, and liver disease.

As the cats age, these physical problems increase and the quality of life decreases. The animals have difficulty rising, walking, climbing stairs, running, and lying down. They are more prone to develop fatty tumors. These tumors can interfere with motion and make the animals uncomfortable. Obese animals also have a greater risk of developing certain malignant cancers. In general, obese pets lead shorter, less comfortable lives than those kept at the proper weight.

The following suggestions can help a cat owner determine if their cat is overweight and implement an appropriate weight reduction program. Realize that some of these suggestions may not be possible or even recommended in all situations.

How to Determine if a Cat is Overweight: Breed type and body structure should be taken into consideration when determining ideal body weight. In general, the best way to tell if a cat is overweight is to examine the cat. Start by looking at the cat from the side as he/she stands. A pet owner should be able to see good definition between the rib cage and the abdominal area. If it cannot be determined where the ribs end and the abdomen begins, the cat is most likely overweight. This method may be more difficult in long haired cats.

The most accurate method involves touch. While the cat is standing, place the hands on both sides of the rib cage. Ribs and rib spaces should easily be felt. A cat within its normal weight range should have a thin layer of fat over the ribs. The more overweight the cat becomes, the heavier the layer of fat will feel. Excess fat can also be present along the back, over the hips, over the abdomen, and between the legs.

Treating the Overweight Pet: All overweight animals should have a veterinary examination before starting treatment. Treatment is designed for gradual, long-term weight reduction. It combines changes in life-style for the pet and often the owner. The entire family must be involved in the process so that one member does not undermine the program by sneaking treats to the pet.

The basis of treatment is a reduction in unnecessary calories and an increase in exercise. Simply feeding a reduced calorie diet is typically not the answer. The pet often does not lose weight, and some low fat diets fed long-term can result in both skin and internal problems.

Before beginning, document the amount of food the pet consumes. This includes the petís regular food, as well as treats, table scraps, and supplements. Compare these amounts (along with protein and fat contents) to the recommendations found on page A575 and to what a veterinarian recommends for the pet. Next, document the exercise that the pet experiences.

Tips to Reduce Calories:

  1. Have the cat examined by a veterinarian to help determine its proper weight and correct dietary requirements.
  2. Eliminate table scraps. They are typically high in fat and calories.
  3. Remove the dieting animal from the table area when family members are eating. This reduces the urge to feed the cat scraps.
  4. Replace the need to give treats as a sign of affection for the pet. Instead, give the pet a massage, a walk, or other attention.
  5. Slightly reduce the amount of commercial food being fed. A veterinarian can tell if the food is appropriate and can recommend the amount to feed the pet. Cut back approximately 20% of the total ration. For accuracy, measure the amount of food being fed and consumed each meal.
  6. Examine the fat content of the petís food. Cat food should have a fat content of approximately 12% or less during a weight loss program.
  7. Consider a "diet food." Available as prescription products or from a local store, these products are usually lower in fat and higher in fiber. They allow the pet to consume the same volume of food with fewer calories. Not all animals can digest these diets. Any changes in diet should be made gradually over one to two weeks.
  8. Feed smaller portions more often. If the pet is usually fed once per day, try two, three, or even four smaller feedings each day. Multiple meals can actually reduce total calories consumed and help the animal feel full.
  9. Weigh the pet regularly to determine if the plan is working. Aim for a gradual weight reduction of less than 1% of the petís body weight per week. Rapid weight loss is dangerous and should be avoided.
  10. If there are other pets in the household, separate the dieting one during feeding. This reduces competition and the urge to eat more.
  11. Keep water available at all times.

Tips for Healthy Exercise:

  1. Have the cat examined by a veterinarian to help determine the proper level of exercise for the catís present condition.
  2. Exercise the pet every single day.
  3. Keep exercise simple and moderate. Over-exercising an obese animal can cause more harm than good. DO NOT place excess strain on the petís already stressed cardiac, respiratory, and musculo-skeletal system. Watch an overweight animal for signs of fatigue, and stop the exercise if necessary.
  4. As the pet adapts to the exercise, the amount and intensity of exercise can be gradually increased. Begin by doing some sort of exercise with the pet for about 15-20 minutes per day. Increase the time spent until the pet is exercised 30 minutes 3-5 times a week.
  5. For some cats, the exercise may mean playing games such as catching small toys or string. Time spent out of the house with plenty of physical activity can also be included as exercise.
  6. Sometimes, the addition of another cat as a playmate is appropriate. If the overweight cat is not compatible with other cats, this option should not be attempted.
  7. Provide water on a regular basis to help prevent overheating.

Conclusion: Pets are members of the family, and they must be kept fit, not fat. Pet owners have a responsibility to help a pet remain healthy. To do this, remember to feed a restricted calorie diet if needed and eliminate table scraps. Exercise should be an important part of any weight reduction program. With these activities, the pet will live a happier, healthier life.