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Treating and preventing feline obesity

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While feline obesity is a growing problem within the cat population, there are specific steps you can take to treat and prevent feline obesity in your cat. 

Kris had issues from the time Carolyn Pomykala brought him home from the City of Chicago’s animal shelter in December 2006. Pomykala said the orange tiger short-hair domestic had dental problems. Once they were cleared up in early 2007, Kris started to chow down on the unrestricted food and put on the pounds. In a year, Kris’ weight shot up 2.5 pounds. She said he tipped the scale at 14.5 in February 2008 and is down slightly. Kris is on a weight-control program, with a goal of losing 2.4 pounds, 16 percent of his weight.

Colleen Currigan, DVM, of the Cat Hospital of Chicago, cares for Kris, and said switching to a lighter food is not usually enough and that owners need to talk over the issue with their vets. “Your veterinarian can discuss the best diet or diets for your cat and then determine the cat’s caloric needs and amounts of food to feed,” she said. She said switching feeding approaches is vital so that cats have measured amounts of food rather than unrestricted access to food.

Meal feeding: Key to success

Currigan said “meal feeding,” giving each cat its own measured amount of food, is the most successful approach to reaching and maintaining a goal weight because in most cases, owners can better monitor each cat’s intake.

“In my own home, I do not need to separate the cats at all – but in some multi-cat homes, especially if the cats’ dietary requirements are different, and/or the cats are inclined to play musical bowls (and owners are not able to police this), then feeding separately is the best way to go.”

Transitioning to meal feeding, especially from free feeding, can be challenging for some owners and cats, especially in a multiple-cat household. It does take some time and a desire to make it work, but it often is just the best solution. If an owner free feeds and no cats in the home are overweight, then free feeding is fine. Unfortunately, however, that is rarely the case – there’s usually at least one cat or more that becomes heavy with the free feeding method.

Currigan said picking up food for several hours a day to reduce the amount of time cats have access to food is a way to start the transition to meal feeding.

“I usually suggest that they start by picking up the food for parts of the day. For example, instead of leaving it out 24/7, try picking it up during the day; then maybe try leaving it out for four to five hours twice daily; then cut back to two to three hours twice daily, etc. The goal is to put down two or three measured amounts of food per day for each cat and to have them eat each portion completely within five to ten minutes."

Advantages to meal feeding

"During this process the cat or cats will start to realize that the food will not just always be available and over time they will start to eat the food when it is put down," Currigan said. "Another advantage to meal feeding is that you will know immediately if a cat is not eating and be able to get that cat more timely veterinary care,” she said.

Although many owners are concerned that their normal-weight cats will lose weight, that is rarely the case. The normal-weight cats ‘eat to live’ and know when food is available – it’s those ‘live to eat’ cats that need a new focus.

“I tell owners that an outdoor cat that hunts for food will require about 240 calories per day. A mouse contains about 30 calories, so it takes about eight mice a day to meet the caloric requirements of an outdoor cat. They have to work hard for those eight mice. Most of our patients are indoors cats, however, and they are not nearly as active, so their calorie requirements are usually much less – often 150-200 calories/day. Some dry foods contain 550-600 calories per cup. So you can see how free feeding can lead to feline obesity if the cats are not self-regulators,” she said.

Helping Kris slim down

Pomykala said Kris no longer receives “people food” and no longer has free access to food.

“He gets three quarters of a scoop (of dry food) in the morning, that’s it,” she said. “At first he would eat it all in the morning and frankly be whiny at night. Now he rations himself as I find some left when I come home at 6 p.m., but it is all gone by the next morning. He leads me to his feeding bowl – first thing in the morning.”

Kris is receiving fewer treats. And Pomykala has encouraged exercise. “It’s not enough to leave toys out,” she said. “He’s a young cat. He loves to play, run, jump.” She has planted toys in all the rooms in her house and has an exercise program. “Anything I can drag, toss, flick, he is on it. High leaps – wild runs up and downstairs. Big movements.

He is a new and happier cat. He loves the attention.”

To read about exercising your cat, click here.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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