Keeping Your Kitty at a Healthy Weight

I have had writer’s block over this very newsletter for TWO MONTHS and I finally realized why.  I have had great personal success treating feline obesity.  The catch is I have had a data base of one, and thus feel as though I do not have the experience to tell you how to treat or prevent obesity in every individual kitty.

Cats are much more difficult weight loss candidates than are dogs.  There are a myriad of different diet options and exercise options, most of them mirrored after what works in dogs or people, which, as you know, are entirely different species than cats!  Also, cats are not always as amiable to trying new things as dogs are.

With dogs, a slow, steady weight loss is most ideal, however, rapid weight loss is not as dangerous a situation as it is in cats.  As Amanda Kehm reminded me to mention, fatty liver, or hepatic lipidosis, is a condition of cats that may develop when cats metabolize their fat stores more quickly than their body can process them.  The fat byproducts build up in the liver, and interfere with the liver’s function.  This happens most often with weight loss secondary to an induced diet or a primary disease.  Hepatic lipidosis is treatable, but it can cause significant discomfort, and in extreme cases can even be fatal.  Do not let this scare you!  This disease becomes extremely rare when an otherwise healthy overweight cat is aided in slow, steady weight loss using appropriate means.

Russ and I have owned only one cat, the awesome and beautiful Max the Cat.  He had been one of two blood donors at Iowa State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.  When I graduated, we adopted him and brought him with us to Littleton Colorado.  He has had only two health-related issues in his life, dental disease and obesity, admittedly both very huge issues for a cat.  So Max gets his teeth cleaned under anesthesia once a year.  And when he became overweight, we switched him from Science Diet Maintenance to Science Diet Light.  He has always enjoyed playing, so we did not change anything about his exercise habits.  The diet change alone was enough to bring Max back to a healthy weight within a year.

I know…I usually write in broader strokes, in generalities that can apply to every pet, but here is my new idea, for this newsletter at least…Let’s write this one together.  Tell me what has worked to encourage your cat to exercise and what foods and feeding schedules have helped them to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.  I will put your stories right into this newsletter word for word.

If you are frustrated with trying to help your cat lose weight, or if your cat has developed diabetes, heart disease or arthritis, three of the most common sequelae to obesity in cats, tell me that story too.

And tell me what more you would like to know about this area of veterinary medicine.  When I was planning this newsletter, I pictured everyone with an overweight pre-diabetic kitty being able to say, with relief and confidence, “Oh, good.  Now I have a plan.”  And I have been staring at a blank screen, because I just couldn’t write the newsletter that would get us all there.  But I am confident that we can.

I think the most good can be done for the most cats if we all pool our ideas, and come up with some great ideas together.  This topic is much more developed on the canine side of veterinary nutrition, though I believe that veterinary nutrition is making amazing strides on the feline side.  My guess is that in five years, we will have as good of answers to feline obesity prevention and treatment as we do for canine obesity prevention and treatment today.  I also believe that you and I are a part of that answer.  How exciting!  Thank you in advance for your help!

Erika Workman, Pet Nurse says,

“Hmm…getting kitties in shape. That’s kind of a hard one…My kitties keep themselves in shape by playing together… I just have really active kitties, so mine are in great shape. When I had Beau, he was a fattypants, and hated to be outside, so I would take him outside and shut the back door, carry him to the back fence and let him go. He would run to the door, I would go get him and repeat until I felt he’d had enough exercise. Very healthy, and entertaining!”

Russ Finch says,

“Pippin, the cat I had as a kid, was never fat that I remember, but thinking back I see two reasons why.  First, the cat had two main foods that it would consistently eat; donuts and ice cream.  That sounds like a recipe for a fat cat, but in order to get these items, she had to run up, steal them, and run away out of reach to eat them – fast food :)   Second, we played with that cat constantly, which she usually liked.  Her favorite game was fishing.  I put a cat toy on the end of a long fishing line, wound it around the railings, up and down steps, down the hall, through the kitchen… whatever.  Then I got her to follow it as I reeled her in.  She was always active and I think that made all the difference.”

Amanda Kehm of Oakview Petshotel says,

“We’ve had a few board with us recently, and each is trying to lose too fast!  So…no success yet.”

Jodi Finch says,

“Putter was fat. Grandpa spoiled him rotten. Earl was not fat, he was cool. Large, but cool.  Earl and Putter got lots of exercise. They loved to chase things – it didn’t matter what. If it moved, they chased it. Earl was particularly fond of hiding behind things and ambushing people when they walked by… then running like his tail was on fire.”

Caroline Merchant, DVM says,

“I had 2 fat cats. One became hyperthyroid and lost weight, then got cancer and lost more weight. The other cat became diabetic and lost weight. I don’t recommend those methods, although the diabetic seems to have gotten under control and kept the weight off by eating exclusively canned food (feline k/d).”

Daniel Muller says,

Leonard loves to eat. In fact, it is the ONLY thing he is passionate about. He finds little interest in fancy toys or catnip. Giving Leonard a scratch on his (extremely large and round) belly will certainly leave you with a few bite marks. When he is out of food, he will let you know:  a high pitched, almost un-feline like whine and the execution of any lamp, cup, plate, book, phone, etc resting on a table or desk.

I try to only feed Leonard twice a day:  a half cup in the morning and a half cup after work.  This has proven to be an overzealous approach to feeding this beast.  Every morning, around 3:30 I hear crashing and smashing.  Leonard is hungry.  And breaking my stuff.  I like my stuff, so I feed him again.  If I do put my foot down and say “no! you are too fat! no more food today,” he feasts on a house plant or rummages through the trash.

I have Leonard on a weight control formula cat food, but my 22 pound tabby cat is not shedding any weight.

I say…

You all are very wise.  The most frustrating cats are the ones, like Leonard, who have such great owners, and with whom we are doing everything right, and they still are not losing weight.  They too can be brought back to a healthy weight though.  Do not give up!  I will keep this newsletter “open” as long as everyone has ideas.  If you want help with your individual kitty, let me know!

My broad (haha) recommendation is to bring your kitty in for a wellness check-up.  We will weigh him or her and determine his or her body condition score.  See “I Promise Not to Say Kilocalorie to You” for instructions on determining body condition score.  It is very simple, and is determined the same for dogs and cats.

From there, we will determine if the food your cat is on is appropriate or if a different food is needed.  We will talk more in person about this one:   There are high fiber and, more recently, high protein (Catkins-haha) diets for weight loss in cats.  Either can be appropriate, and there are drawbacks to both.

With dogs, we may switch them from free-feeding to meals, or decrease the amount of food per meals.  Scheduled meals may not be the way to go with cats.  They naturally enjoy and are suited for eating several small meals through the day and night.

And exercise is good for ALL of us, but as you know, the best way to get a cat to yell their mantra at you (“CATS ARE NOT SMALL DOGS!”) is to put a leash on one!  So we will find some FUN exercise options.  Before you know it, your cat will once again be sleek and fit…and ready for a well-earned nap.

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2 Responses to “Keeping Your Kitty at a Healthy Weight”

  1. Erika says:

    I love it! We were right, it is a hard topic to come up with answers to. Feline Obesity is such a difficult thing to come up with a solution to. I would like to forward this on to The Cat House, and draw from the large pool of kitty-oriented minds, if that’s cool with you(I am pretty sure it will be) Great Job, Dr. Finch! You are as awesome a writer as you are Vet!

  2. admin says:

    Thanks Erika! Please do! I would love their input!

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