Feline obesity is both preventable and reversible with the right interventions.
By Scott and Ann Springer
Cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, but only in the last half of the 20th century have cats packed on the pounds and faced the problems that accompany obesity, reports Jim Boelke, president of Cat Dancer Products Inc., a Neenah, Wis.-based manufacturer of cat toys.
“This health problem was created because in the past 50 years we have almost completely denied cats’ access to the outdoors,” Boelke explains. “Obesity is the No. 1 health problem for house cats.”
By indulging them with treats, feeding them high-fat foods and giving them little or no exercise, cat owners jeopardize their pets’ health in exchange for what owners call “affection” or “pampering,” Boelke says.
“We love our cats to death—literally,” Boelke adds. “Obesity puts them at risk for other ailments, including diabetes and joint problems.”
According to Boelke, the remedy for this feline-health crisis is the same as what a doctor would recommend for a human in the same condition.
“Eat less food, eat lighter foods and get more exercise,” he says. “That’s the way to get true results.”
A Recipe for a Fat Cat
While putting on a few extra pounds may not seem like a big deal to humans, it can be a 10- to 20-percent gain for a cat that normally weighs 10 pounds, warns Roger Brown, DVM, and the board member at large for the Cat Fanciers’ Association.
“You have to look at the percentage of body weight that is gained,” Dr. Brown says. “One pound is so much more on a cat.”
Since there are so many breeds of cats (and many are mixed breeds), it may be difficult to detect if a cat is truly obese. Brown offers three simple steps to share with cat owners wanting to know how their cat weighs in.
- Look at the silhouette of the abdomen of the cat. If a cat is overweight, the abdomen will sag, just as it does in a person. The rib cage will drop and the abdomen will be thicker and not as streamline.
- Examine the feline for fat deposits. Look in the lower abdomen just above the hind legs, behind the shoulder blades and even in the cheek folds.
- Carefully detect the difference in texture between skin and fat by picking up the skin. If it’s skin, it will slip between the fingers. If it’s fat, you’ll feel the tissues.
Cat owners need to address the obesity issue first through diet, says Randy Klein, owner of Whiskers Holistic Petcare in New York City.
“Most people leave food out all day for their cats, and their cats end up with physical ailments,” Klein remarks.
In some cases, fixing a feline weight issue may be as simple as suggesting an owner follow the manufacturer’s feeding directions, says Dave Carter, vice president for producer relations for Natural Pet Nutrition, a Westminster, Colo.-based manufacturer of cat and dog food.
Some owners frequently allow their cats’ cute, pouty faces to soften their hearts and they indulge their pets in an extra helping.
“But there’s nothing cute about obesity if it sacrifices a few years of a healthy life from your cat just because you can’t resist that look she’s giving you,” Carter notes.
Metabolism can also play a role in feline obesity. Klein points out that she has two cats of the same species, both of which eat the same diet, but one is overweight and the other is not.
Even with the proper proportions a cat may still gain weight and require a dietary change, Carter says.
In those cases, a low-calorie and high-fiber diet, with no more than 2-percent fat, may be a good regime for obese felines, says Roger Brown, DVM, a board member at large for the Cat Fanciers’ Association. “High-fiber diets give cats the feeling of being full without eating too many calories,” he adds.
Treats can really pack on the pounds, even on a cat eating a healthful diet, Klein emphasizes. She adds that some, including freeze-dried, pure-protein treats, are healthier than others.
Healthy Cats are Dog-tired
Once Fluffy is on a healthful diet, the next area a cat owner must address is exercise.
“Cats typically aren’t getting the physical activity they need to counteract the food they’re eating,” Klein reports.
Aerobic exercise in as little as 15 to 20 minutes a day can help cats shed excess weight, Boelke says. “I’ve seen a cat that was morbidly obese lose 9 pounds with a little bit of exercise,” he adds.
Toys that recreate activities in the wild appeal to a cat’s basic instincts and get it moving, Boelke explains. "Cats know how to hunt, so playtime is just rehearsing some aspect of the hunt,” he says. “Toys should be used to imitate prey.”
Diane Young, owner of Health Mutts, a pet-product retail store in Fresno, Calif., acknowledges it can be hard to give a cat the level of exercise it would get in the wild.
“But anything an owner can do to get it to run around and play will help to prevent his or her cat from getting fat,” she adds.
Pet-store retailers can suggest methods to help cats burn calories and increase their exercise level, Brown says.
“People forget that environmental enrichment is the keystone to weight loss,” he adds.
Young recommends stocking laser lights, battery-operated mice, toy wands, catnip balls and other interactive toys to help cat owners convert their pets from couch potatoes to fit felines.
Brown comments that a lone cat may appreciate a playmate. Pet-store retailers who sell cats might want to suggest purchasing a second cat to boost the activity level of the fat, lazy one.
Dangling toys at the end of wands or faux fishing rods encourage interactive play, reports Amy Osete, vice president of marketing for Bamboo, a North Hills, Calif.-based manufacturer dog and cat products, including cat toys.
Many cats eat out of boredom. To counteract a monotonous lifestyle, Brown suggests stocking toys a cat can use while its owner isn’t available.
Some toys are designed for use on doorknobs. Others aim to incite a solitary cat to play when the cat owner sets the toys out.
“These products engage kitties for standalone play,” Osete says.
Some toys even have timers.
“It’s like a cuckoo clock for cats,” Boelke explains. “It gets them to get up and play for a few minutes when no one is around during the day.”
Young estimates that 99 percent of all cats she provides grooming services to are overweight.
“Most people don’t think their cats are fat,” Young says. “As a store owner, I’ll make a suggestion to cut back on their food and people will get mad sometimes.”
Young admits it’s a touchy subject to broach—most of her clientele are oblivious to their cats’ weight problems—but retailers have a responsibility to help educate customers on this health issue.
“Sadly, we sell more cat strollers than cat leashes,” Young notes. “I believe more people feel it is okay to let a cat get fat than to let a dog be overweight.”
To aid in the education process, Young displays pictures of healthy-weight cats next to images of overweight ones. Bullet points detailing potential health risks of obesity adorn the educational area, as do feline toys, healthful snacks and leashes.
Many cat owners don’t understand the health concerns involved in obesity, Klein observes.
“I don’t think it crosses the consciousness of most people,” she says. “They just think ‘Yes, he’s overweight, but he’s so cute.’”
Enlisting the professional advice of veterinarians may also aid in the problem.
“Educate store personnel to encourage pet parents to talk with their veterinarians,” Osete suggests.
Klein recommends having high-quality foods available and educating store staff about how the ingredients in those foods help tame their cats’ obesity.
Osete proposes retailers provide instructional cards with feeding suggestions in the food-and-treat aisle.
Pet-store retailers should place specially formulated foods at eye-level to increase sales, Carter says.
Cross-promoting cat toys on clip strips near low-fat cat foods can increase awareness and sales.
“It’s a great add-on sale to cat foods, which don’t have much of a margin, and you’re helping your customers exercise their cats,” Boelke reports. “Everybody wins.”
Osete notes that in-store displays demonstrating interactive toys may also help increase cat-toy sales. <HOME>
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