As we enter into 2013, a common concern among our clients is how to manage their pet’s weight.  Today’s blog includes some background and basic information on weight loss in cats.

How do I know if my cat is overweight?

Certainly there are breed variations, and the “ideal weight” of each cat will vary.  As veterinarians, we typically use a measurement called a body condition score (BCS) to evaluate body weight in cats (and dogs).  This is a scale from 1-9 with 1 representing a severely underweight cat, 5 being ideal, and 9 being clinically obese.   We then use our physical exam to determine where each individual cat falls on this scale.  The ease with which the ribcage can be palpated, a clear waistline and “abdominal tuck” are factors which influence the BCS score of your cat.  Cats in particular tend to carry excess weight in an abdominal fat pad found on the cat’s belly.

Here are three easy ways to evaluate your cat’s weight at home:

  • Rib Check: Place both of your thumbs on your cat’s backbone and spread both hands across her rib cage.  Your hands should fall easily between the rib spaces.  Actually feeling your cat is important, as the coat of many cats will make a visual check difficult.
  • Profile Check: Examine your cat’s profile – it’s best if you are level with your cat. Look for the abdomen to be tucked up behind her rib cage – this is ideal.
  • Overhead Check: Looking at your cat from overhead, identify whether you can see a waist behind her ribs.

Also see this link on the Hill’s website which has graphic demonstration of body condition score if you need more help:

It’s just 1-2 pounds, what is the harm?

Let’s take for example a cat with an ideal weight of 10 lbs (this is the ideal weight for most domestic short hair cats).  A gain of 1 pound represents 10% of the cat’s body weight, and would be the equivalent of 15 pounds on the average woman.

Cat’s Weight (pounds) Percentage overweight Equivalent weight for a 5’4” woman (pounds) Equivalent amount overweight for a 5’4” woman Equivalent weight for a 5’9” man (pounds) Equivalent amount overweight for a 5’9” man
10 lbs 0% 145 0 168 0
11 lbs 10% 160 15 186 18
13 lbs 30% 189 44 220 52
15 lbs 50% 218 73 253 85
20 lbs 100% 290 145 336 168

You can see from this chart that what seems to be a small amount of weight for a cat is actually a BIG deal if we think about that amount of weight on our own bodies.

As has been discovered in people, there are several disease processes that are associated with obesity in cats, including:

  • Diabetes mellitus: Obese cats have a four-fold greater risk of becoming diabetic.  This is thought to be related to the recent finding that adipose tissue is not simply storage of extra fat cells.  In fact, it is a metabolically active organ which secretes hormones such as leptin and tumor necrosis factor alpha, which can alter insulin sensitivity in your cat’s body.
  • Other associated disease conditions include lameness, skin disease, hepatic lipidosis, and lower urinary tract disease.   Each of these conditions can alter the quality of your cat’s life, be expensive and time consuming to treat, and shorten your cat’s lifespan.

What can I do to help my cat lose weight?

The first step is to determine how much food you are feeding your cat on a daily basis.   Be sure to include all cat foods (dry and wet), people food, treats, or food required to give daily medications.   Does your cat have access to the outdoors?  He could be supplementing his calories with hunting.  Ask all members of the household what they have been feeding kitty – often there are miscommunications between family members about how much food is fed.

Once you have determined the amount of food your cat receives each day, you can begin to cut back.  Treats should be carefully considered.   A typical 10 pound cat needs approximately 225 calories per day.  Commercial cat treats are 2-4 calories/piece, so even 5 cat treats could represent almost 10% of the cat’s daily calorie requirements.  People foods such as milk or cheese are very high and fat and calories (a cube of cheddar cheese is ~113 calories).  Another consideration is the type of food. Cats are true carnivores and many types of dry cat foods have a significant percentage of carbohydrates which can make weight loss more challenging.  We have found that most cats are successful with a diet that includes a high protein, increased fiber and moisture content, and low carbohydrates.  We can work with your to find a food that will be both healthy and palatable for your kitty.  Often this includes adding a canned food to the cat’s diet.

As with any weight loss plan, slow and steady is best.  Rapid weight loss is dangerous in cats, so it is best to consult with a veterinarian before embarking on a weight loss strategy for your kitty.

How do I get my cat to exercise?

Although sometimes a challenging task in our “couch potato” kitties, enriching your cat’s environment and encouraging active play can really make a difference in a weight loss program.   Enrichment may include toys, climbing trees, window perches and scratching posts.  Daily playtime is also encouraged and can help you bond with your kitty at non-meal times.   Laser pointers or cat dancers (hand-held flexible wire with a toy dangling at the end) are some of our favorites.  Meal times can also be extended with puzzles and other challenges that stimulate natural hunting behavior.   Easy DIY options include hiding the daily ration of food in muffin tins throughout the home or creating “food puzzles” out of egg cartons, plastic yogurt containers, or paper towel rolls with holes 3-4 times the size of the kibble so they will fall out easily when the cat plays with the toy.

Here is a short video link to a shelter kitty playing with a food puzzle:

Above all, if you are concerned about your cat’s weight gain, bring it up at your next appointment, and we will work with you to formulate an individualized weight loss plan.

Take care,

Dr. Julia Mulvaney, DVM

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