With an alarming number of fat cats out there -- one scientific study concluded that 53 percent of cats in the U.S. are either overweight or obese -- your not-quite-svelte feline may need to quit the clean plate club. Tubby tabbies face an array of possible health problems, including arthritis, diabetes, heart and liver issues. They may also suffer illnesses, such as bladder stones or skin conditions that require special eating habits. And diabetic cats need strictly monitored care and feeding. But getting a cat to follow any diet not of his own choosing isn't as simple as cutting out treats and serving tiny portions. Knowing what to expect as you alter your cat's meal plan will help you to keep him on the right nutritional path.
When should a plump cat slim down? Most vets classify a cat with more than 20 percent body fat as overweight, but more simply, if the feline profile viewed from above has no waistline or abdominal tuck, the cat is too fat. You should be able to feel, but not see, his ribs. He shouldn't have folds of swinging fat when he walks. A cat's ideal weight depends on age, breed, lifestyle, bone structure and gender, but the average adult cat generally tips the scales at 7 to 11 pounds (3.1 to 4.9 kilograms), with females weighing less.
Two to 3 extra pounds (.9 to 1.36 kilograms) for a cat is equivalent to 40 pounds (18 kilograms) for a human! No wonder we have such an epidemic of obesity. Furthermore, cats that have been spayed or neutered use fewer calories than intact felines, so they often don't need to eat as much; they put on pounds because their owners offer too much food and not enough exercise.
Never put your cat on a diet, or switch to "diet food," without first consulting your vet. Drastically changing the amount or type of food your cat eats can invite digestive problems or deplete crucial nutrients. The vet will determine if your cat has health problems in addition to being overweight. She'll then suggest the right food to attack the problems, or an eating regimen, including portion sizes, to tackle weight loss.
How Do Cats Adjust to New Diets?
Helping a cat adapt to his new eating plan requires patience. A cat accustomed to free feeding all day long may be confused or unhappy about structured mealtimes, especially when dinner is a small ration, or a strange food with an unexpected taste or texture. He may initially reject the new menu, stalking away from his dish in visible displeasure. If the cat leaves his food untouched or unfinished, remove it after 30 minutes, and try again at the next scheduled mealtime. An aromatic spoonful of beef or chicken broth poured over the new food will pique his appetite. Hunger will eventually prevail, prompting the cat to consume his diet meals.
To stay healthy, cats should shed pounds gradually, losing no more than 0.5 to 2 percent of his total weight per week. For instance, a 20-pound (9-kilogram) cat should drop no more than about a pound (453 grams) in a month. Losing too quickly can create problems: The cat could develop serious liver disease, or the lost weight could reappear. If the cat is dropping weight too quickly, consult your vet, who may adjust the meal size or calorie count, or recommend vitamin supplements.
Excess weight isn't the only reason cats need to be on diets. Your vet may prescribe a formula food that targets the animal's medical conditions, from hairballs to dental disease to bladder or urinary tract infections. Cats with food allergies react adversely to the protein in most cat foods, and require nutrition especially formulated to their sensitive systems.
Diets for Diabetic Cats
Diabetic cats are often overweight or even obese, and their extra poundage is a major factor in their inability to produce or correctly process insulin, the pancreatic hormone that turns food into energy. Your vet can prescribe the right nutritional plan to help the cat slowly and safely lose weight. The strictly enforced eating plan should always avoid the soft or moist types of food, high in sugar, that result in a quick accumulation of blood glucose. Usually a diet high in complex carbohydrates and fiber works for diabetic cats, and may also stabilize the blood sugar levels after eating. Some diabetic cats thrive on diets low in carbohydrates and higher in protein, but the individual cat's well-being will determine the correct combination. Never change a diabetic cat's diet without your vet's advice.
Commercially produced formula foods, both canned and dry, often help to stabilize the diabetes by controlling the cat's insulin levels. A diabetic cat that requires insulin injections when first diagnosed may respond so well to a specialized diet that he'll no longer need the shots. If the cat won't eat his formula food, work with your vet to find an acceptable substitute.
Diabetic cats need to eat regularly to prevent an insulin overdose. Setting mealtimes for the cat, usually two to three times a day, will help regulate his body's insulin levels. If your cat gets insulin injections, your vet will advise you about the right times to give these, usually twice a day, after the cat has digested a meal.
3: Keep Your Cat Fit
Cats are blissfully sedentary, napping for hours daily. While kittens are bundles of energy, cats slow the pace down as they age. Getting a cat to move around, however, will fight feline obesity, which can lead to other health problems. Incorporate activity into your cat's day by placing food and water in an elevated spot, or get a carpeted "cat tree" to encourage climbing. Engage in some cat play time yourself, offering a dangling toy on a stick or tossing ping-pong balls. A track ball that the cat can swat in a circle, or a laser pointer, will keep its attention and reflexes sharp. If you have only one cat, consider adding a companion. Two cats will play together and keep each other acting youthful.
2: Consider an Indoor Retirement
Indoor cats enjoy longer lives. They're free from predators, such as dogs, hawks, owls or even coyotes. They're not targets for human abuse. Indoor cats also aren't at risk from traffic, and they don't trespass on neighbors' precious lawns. There won't be any fights with unfamiliar cats, any of which could transmit parasites or diseases such as feline leukemia or FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus).
Cats don't need outdoor life, but if you believe yours yearns for open spaces, there are alternatives to letting it roam. Teach your cat to wear a harness and leash so you can go on supervised walks. A "catio" is another solution: a securely enclosed balcony, deck or other outdoor space that lets the cat enjoy fresh air while staying safe.
1: Schedule Annual Vet Exams
Every cat can benefit from an annual visit to the vet. The vet will weigh your cat, check his eyes, ears and heart, and probe his teeth and gums. He or she also will look at the cat's coat and skin, explore any odd bumps or lumps on its body, check for fleas, and discuss the cat's well-being with you. Your cat may also be due for rabies or distemper shots. Cats older than 7 should ideally see a vet twice a year; age-related changes will start taking place more often, and resulting illnesses can often be controlled with an early diagnosis. Your vet will add a blood test, stool exam and urinalysis to the older cat's checkup.
Whatever your cat's age, see your vet immediately if you notice any of these symptoms: changes in eating habits, foul breath, excessive thirst, lethargy, weight loss or gain, vomiting, coughing, frequent urination or straining in the litter box, or blood in stool or urine.