We all know how cats crave mice and birds as a food
source. Did you know that a mouse or a bird is composed of only 3
to 8 percent carbohydrate and most of that is from what is in the
digestive tract? The rest is water, a few minerals, protein
There are more cats than dogs in the USA at this
time. And 40 percent of those cats are considered to be obese!
Only 5 to 10 percent of all cats can be classified as only slightly
overweight. In recent years Feline Diabetes Mellitus (diabetes) has
become almost a daily diagnosis in animal hospitals all across
America. Our cats are at risk for a number of obesity related
disorders. Documented research indicates obese cats are far more
prone than cats of
body weight to Diabetes, arthritis and a very serious disorder
called Hepatic Lipidosis. And the 40 percent obesity figure seems
to be growing.
So what is happening that predisposes our domestic
felines to a life of sedentary obesity? The answer is
multifactorial but to simplify, just remember this… any individual
mammal (dog, cat, horse, human, etc.) will gain body weight if it
consumes more calories than it burns as fuel for energy. That’s
pretty simple, but true. In Nature, food acquisition has never been
a sure thing for any creature… not for canines, felines or humans.
So food acquisition has always been accompanied by physical exertion
to capture (or cultivate) and consume the food. It is only in recent
times that the unnatural situation of food excess, readily acquired
and consumed with little accompanying physical exertion, has become
a way of life. We humans have figured how not to have to do all
that work of capturing and cultivating to build up stores of food.
Through agricultural expertise we have learned how to grow food and
raise livestock and to have those food sources readily available and
in abundance… just in case we get hungry! We learned how to
refrigerate, dry, preserve and store foods in large quantities that
assured us we would not have to endure long and unsuccessful hunting
forays nor suffer through famines. We have created the very same
food acquisition assurances for our domestic dogs and cats. They,
as we, no longer have to hunt to survive. Indeed, we no longer even
have to live outdoors.
It’s interesting that our pets have mirrored our own
tendency to have trouble with weight control. The major difference,
though, is that we humans have complete control over what our pets
eat and how much they eat. Unless your dog or cat is sneaking into
the fridge and making ham and cheese sandwiches late at night when
no one is around, the only way they get to eat is when YOU place the
food in front of them.
Every veterinarian has repeatedly heard a serious
minded dog or cat owner state “I know you think she’s overweight,
Doctor, but it isn’t from the food! She hardly eats a thing.”
Well… is the pet overweight from high calorie air? Maybe it’s the
water… or from laying on that couch all the time. That’s it! The
couch is making the kitty fat, not the food.
Seriously, far too many pet owners truly believe that
food intake has nothing at all to do with their pet’s weight and no
amount of counseling will convince them otherwise.
If that describes your position, read no further because the rest of
this article is all about how to feed the proper food and in the
correct quantity so that the cat will
loose weight safely or
maintain an optimum weight. There will be nothing in this article
about the effect of high calorie air,
water or comfortable furniture
on the cat’s weight problem.
Any cat that is overweight should have a physical
exam performed, exact weight measured and blood and urine tests
run. It is vital that normal thyroid hormone levels are present and
that the cat has no physical or metabolic dysfunction. If the cat
is physically normal, other than the abnormal body weight from fat
deposition, then a gradual and careful weight loss program can be
instituted. First, let’s look at what the causes of obesity are and
what we can do to correct OUR mistakes:
THE main reason for feline obesity
(as well as obesity in other mammals) is the consumption of too
much food. Deny it all you want, it is a fact.
What we do…
Many cats are fed “free choice”, which means there is
food available all the time and the cat eats whenever it wants.
(Pretty unnatural for a true carnivore that evolved as a hunting
machine!) Free choice feeding has probably been the biggest single
factor contributing to feline obesity.
What we should
Feed one or two small portions daily and control the
amounts fed so that over a period of time the cat
does not gain weight.
Many pet owners must downsize what they think is a “normal” portion.
A meal for a 175-pound human might weigh 16 to 24 ounces. A
seven-pound cat weighs 1/25 of the 175-pound human. So a cat’s
meal should proportionally be about 1/25 of a human meal. That
comes out to between 0.6 and 1.0 ounce of food per meal for a
seven-pound cat… about the same weight as a mouse. Cat owners
must stop thinking in terms of “cups of food” and start thinking in
terms of ounces of food.
Cats, unlike most mammals, have no
carbohydrate-digesting enzyme called
Amylase in their saliva. Humans and dogs do and actually begin the
digestion of carbohydrate in the mouth. In the intestine, amylase
secreted from the pancreas breaks down large carbohydrate molecules
into absorbable smaller units of glucose.
Cats have measurably less amylase activity than humans or dogs.
Nature did not intend the kitty to be a carbohydrate consumer.
What we do…
We purchase convenient, attractively packaged and
preserved dry foods mainly because we can pour it in the bowl and
forget it. Dry pet food must have higher levels of flour and sugar
than canned foods so that the kibble will stay uniform and not fall
apart. Spoiling doesn’t readily occur because of the preservatives
so the kitty can eat whenever it wants and we don’t have to prepare
cat meals very often. Unfortunately, especially with dry diets,
because of the metabolic biochemistry that converts the high
carbohydrate content in almost all of today’s commercial cat foods
into stored fat, the cat is really at risk for weight gain.
What we should
a diet consistent with the nature of a true carnivore… a meat based
diet. An ideal feline diet will have a high protein level in the 35
to 45 percent range on a dry matter basis (meaning the percent in
the diet when the water has been removed) and moderate fat content
with a low percentage of carbohydrate grains. A multitude of
research reports have proven that diets high in protein and fat are
most beneficial for carnivores. Cats cannot handle large
carbohydrate loads efficiently. After a meal rich in carbohydrate
the feline’s blood level of glucose tends to stay higher than normal
for long periods of time. They become persistently hyperglycemic
and this long term stimulus on the beta cells in the pancreas… the
cells that produce insulin… renders those cells less sensitive to
the blood glucose. As a result less insulin is secreted to bring
down the blood sugar level. Nutritionists call this “down
regulating’ of the beta cells; the insensitivity of the insulin
secreting beta cells leads to what is termed “insulin
resistance”. This scenario is a prelude to diabetes.
What we do…
And as sensitive and caring humans, we always want to
reward our kitty by providing extra special treats. Treats for cats
have high levels of carbohydrate (flower and sugars) and lots of
flavor enhancers to entice the cat to eat even when it is not
hungry. Cats that annoy us with vocalizing and pretending that they
are starving to death sometimes are rewarded for that annoying
vocalizing by being given a treat to “keep ‘em quiet”. When we
provide the treat we reinforce the vocalizing, effectively rewarding
the cat for making all that racket, and essentially training the cat
to make even more noise!
What we should
Stop feeding treats to the overweight cat. IF you
think your cat NEEDS a treat, cut up little bits of fresh chicken or
fish and feed as a natural protein treat… not a treat made from
grains, food coloring, propylene glycol, and flavor enhancers. And
NEVER feed a treat as a means of stopping a cat from vocalizing
because it has the exact opposite effect and actually reinforces the
cat’s vocalizing/begging behavior.
What we do…
the “Recommended ” daily portions indicated on pet food labels will
nearly always result in feeding more calories than the animal needs
for an average day’s energy requirements. The carbohydrate excess,
unneeded as fuel for metabolism or physical activity, gets converted
to fat and stored in the cat’s fat reserves. The odds are very high
that if you feed the size and numbers of meals suggested on the pet
food label’s feeding recommendations, the cat (or dog) will end up
What we should do…
Tailor the amount fed to the cat’s body character and
physical activity. If the cat looks and feels overweight… it is!
You are feeding too much for that cat’s daily needs for energy for
exercise or physical activity; and regardless of what the pet food
label’s suggested amounts to feed are, you must feed less than that
if the cat is to have a normal (healthy) body weigh.
What we do…
We fill the bowls with food and water, clean the
litter box, and say “See ya later, Kitty, I’m off to work”.
OK… let’s say that you can’t help it. You simply are not going to
change the food amounts, kinds and portions you have always been
feeding your overweight cat. If you are to be successful in
promoting weight loss in your cat you will have to increase its’
energy (calorie) burning activities. This is much easier to do with
a dog by taking it for a walk or run, throwing a ball, swimming,
etc. Good luck going for a run with your cat! Most cats spend most
of their time sleeping on the couch, are left alone for long periods
of time and really have nothing happening in the home that would
trigger a carnivorous hunter’s interest levels. There is nothing to
chase, nothing to hide from, and nothing to stalk and run down.
There is nothing else to do but to take cat naps!
What we should
To assist in improving the kitty’s physical activity,
you can add some interactive play toys to the cat’s environment.
Consider adopting a friendly and playful cat from the local shelter
so the solitary cat has “someone” to interact and play with. Many
people believe two cats are more fun to have and more entertaining
and no more trouble than a single cat. You can also buy toys that
simulate an escaping prey and that really interest the cat in play
behaviors. Cats can be exercised but you may need some imaginative
toys and ideas to get the job done.
SHOULD YOU FEED A CAT?
Now that you know that the cat is a true carnivore
and efficiently utilizes meat protein as a major component of the
diet, you understand why a carbohydrate rich diet simply does not
make sense for felines. Cats are not plant-based grazers; they are
hunters of other animals and to reach an optimum state of health
they must comply with what nature programmed them to be. There are
no vegetarian diets for cats. No matter what your own personal
preference is regarding the ingestion of meat, by Nature’s own rules
the cat requires meat in its diet. One small aspect of this need
for meat is the requirement for ingesting Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin).
As the cat’s caretaker, you have
complete control over what your cat eats, how much it eats and how
often it eats. Pick a diet, for example, Purina DM canned food.
The ingredient list looks like this and the percentage of products
are… Do not worry about the teeth and gums “not having some
abrasion to clean off the tartar”. Cats and dogs being fed
soft meat-based diets have far fewer oral health problems than those
consuming dry, grain-based diets. Other good dry food products will
demonstrate protein levels above 30 percent and fat levels above 18
percent in the Guaranteed Analysis table on the pet food label.
Usually these diets are the “Growth” or “Puppy” or “Kitten” diets…
and these formulations can and should be fed for life. If you still
fear the erroneous myth about “too much protein” being “bad” for
dogs and cats or that protein “causes” kidney damage, you really
need some facts. There are numerous documented reports that will
allay your fears and will update you on correct research. The myth
about protein causing kidney trouble was extrapolated from research
done on rodents many decades ago; the myth developed a life
of its own in spite of being refuted by proper research on dogs
Getting an obese cat to lose weight needs to be done
gradually… no crash diets allowed! Cats have a unique metabolic
response to fasting and whenever a
feline’s food intake is rapidly
and markedly depressed, a serious and potentially fatal disorder
can occur called Hepatic Lipidosis.
One of the reasons for the success of a high protein
diet for feline weight reduction is the importance of an amino acid
called Carnitine. Carnitine is present in good quantities in
muscle tissues, but found in miniscule amounts in vegetable matter.
This amino acid plays an essential role in the uptake of stored fat
reserves and conversion of fat by the liver back to into glucose.
The ability to convert stored fat into glucose for energy
(and for subsequent weight loss to be accomplished)
requires Carnitine in the process. Supplementing a cat’s diet with
L-Carnitine in amounts approximating 250 to 500 mg per cat per day
will aid in mobilizing fat into glucose and will improve the health
of a cat that is in a weight loss program.
First, your veterinarian needs to do a
thorough physical exam, blood chemistry profile including Thyroid
hormone evaluation, and record an accurate weight for the cat. Then
you should gradually… over a period of three to four weeks… add
greater and greater proportions of the suggested feline weight-loss
diet. Mix the new diet with the old, slowly decreasing the
percentage of the old diet and increasing the percentage of the new
one. Pay close attention to how much the cat is eating every day.
When the cat acclimates to the improved, high protein diet (fed in
small amounts frequently during the day), reweigh the cat at
four-week intervals. If there is no weight loss at all, or even
some weight gain, the amount of food you are allowing is simply too
much. You may be thinking in human-sized portions, not feline.
Remember the mouse. One mouse would make a good meal for an average
sized cat. Every three to four weeks reweigh your cat on the same
scale each time so that accurate weight measurements are done. A
fifteen-pound cat should not lose more than half a pound in four
weeks. (Remember the Hepatic Lipidosis problem!)
Always be observant and report to your veterinarian
any time a cat stops eating
for two or more days. (That’s one of
the subtle problems with the “free choice” method of feeding. We
often do not notice that the cat’s food dish is still full until the
cat is well in to a fasting mode. When cats are sick the first
clinical sign is often a loss of appetite; so a non-interactive,
free choice feeding protocol provides less information to us than an
interactive portion controlled feeding method.) Any cat that hasn’t
eaten in three days is in trouble! Seven days of fasting actually
impacts the cat’s immune system.
Once you have established a feeding plan that induces
gradual weight loss over a period of months the cat will reach a
point where weight maintenance occurs. At this optimal weight the
cat should not “look fat” nor “look skinny”. You’d be surprised how
much more active and alert the cat will be at an optimum weight.
You have successfully avoided the probability of Diabetes, arthritis
and Hepatic Lipidosis. Your cat will probably live a few extra
years and have a much better quality of life… and that will make you
To get a cat to lose weight, do the following after consulting
with your veterinarian:
NOTE: ABOUT RAISING KITTENS
Veterinary nutritionists suggest that we expose very young cats to a
food types and textures. Cats are staunch creatures of habit and if
a kitten is raised on a dry foo kibble diet only, the odds are high
that it will reject any non-kibble diet later in life. (It might
not even know what to do with a captured mouse!) Food preference
can be set on canned food, too. As kittens are developing, be sure
to provide a wide variety of food types, textures, and tastes so
that later in life, if weight loss diets are required, you will be
able to select a type and texture that will be in the cat’s best