Does your cat need to go on a diet? This is how to do it properly

By Dr. David Rosenblatt, D.V.M

“Doctor, Shenkin isn’t feeling well. I think he has a heart problem.” I looked at the nice women in front of me in the exam room, and at Shenkin the huge ginger cat who was splayed across the exam table, purring and grooming in clear satisfaction. Three questions went through my head:

Why does she think Shenkin has a heart problem? How on earth did Shenkin get to be so big? And why is his name Shenkin?

After the client explained that she gave Shenkin his name because she found him on Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv eight years ago, when they were both young and beautiful, she went on to describe a concerning medical condition. The cat has been having a hard time getting up lately, pants like a dog, limps occasionally, and looks a lot less alert and happy. I placed my stethoscope on Shenkin’s chest and once I had convinced him to stop purring, I barely managed to hear his poor heart pumping through the immense layer of fat. There was no evidence of an audible heart disease. I finished examining Shenkin, took some blood for further testing, but at this stage I was fairly certain that I knew what was bothering him.

One of the most common diseases among cats - obesity

Shenkin suffered from one of the most common diseases among cats. The disease is called obesity in professional jargon but in the vernacular, the fat cat syndrome. He was so fat that his leg muscles could not manage to carry his body weight with ease and this is where the difficulty getting up and the limping stemmed from. The fat tissue has difficulty dissipating excess heat, which is why on hot days he panted to stay cool. He was tired because his heart was straining to pump blood throughout his massive body. Fat cats are in a high-risk group for heart disease, joint disease, skin disease, reproductive disorders, diabetes, and more.

Obesity in cats is becoming increasingly more common, among other things, because of the ongoing process of urbanization. The transition to city life does not enable the house cat to frolic outdoors and they are often trapped inside for their entire lives. Obviously the indoor cat has limited exercise options, leading to weight gain and poor health.

The treatment for obesity is simple, in theory. Not just for cats but also for dogs, humans, and other animals. We manage an energy “bank”. As long as we spend what we deposit, our weight does not change. As soon as we eat more calories than what the body needs, the excess energy is stored in fat reserves. In cats, these stores are under the skin in the abdomen and chest area. There are also fat stores inside the abdominal cavity adjacent to internal organs such as the heart, kidneys, and the digestive system. In order to lose the excess weight, you have to eat fewer calories, or do more exercise, or both. Opportunities to exercise more in cats exist, but are limited. A cat is not a dog and you can’t run with him in the park or throw him a frisbee. Regardless, owners should keep their cats active using special cat toys, which encourage activity. A visit to the pet store will expose you to a variety of activity toys for cats.

However, obviously the key to success is restricting the amount of calories.

Don’t limit the amount of food, but rather the amount of calories

Note: Don’t limit the amount of food, but rather the amount of calories! This is a very important distinction. It’s true that if you reduce the amount of food, the amount of calories decreases accordingly, which is why it seems like an obvious solution. However, food provides more than just calories. It also has essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. We don’t want to reduce any of those. We want a slim cat but not a sick one! Also, there are pressure sensors inside the cat’s stomach. When the stomach is full, the wall stretches and the pressure sensors are activated. These transmit a signal to the satiety center in the brain, and give the cat a sense of being full and satisfied. If we decrease the amount of calories for a fat cat by decreasing the amount of food, he may feel hungry and miserable.

The correct way to manage a diet for fat cats is to switch the cat to a calorie-reduced diet that is suited to urban cats. This food has fewer calories per unit of volume compared to regular food, and it contains the right amount of vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients. The cat can feel full without ingesting too many calories.

If you are concerned about your cat’s obesity and have decided to treat it, make sure you follow a few rules to ensure success:

1. It’s important to follow a weight loss plan that is under veterinary supervision! Weight loss that is too rapid for cats can be dangerous and cause severe liver damage. Use calorie-reduced food made by a trusted brand that has a veterinary consultation service. Determine the amount of food according to the food company’s professional guidelines written on the package or according to their website.

2. Weigh the cat at the beginning of the diet and every two weeks. Many veterinary clinics have an electronic scale for weighing cats. If not, use a regular scale for people. Weigh yourselves holding the cat and then again without the cat and subtract the difference. If there is no weight loss, decrease the food slightly.

3. Do not let the cat eat anything other than his dietetic food. Even if your cat is fat, he is still much smaller than a human. Snacking on a cube of cheese for us is insignificant, but if we give that same small cube of cheese to a cat, it’s as if we ate a block of cheese the size of a cellphone.

4. Divide the daily amount of food into 5-10 small meals. Many cats graze throughout the day, so we can give them food and fill up whenever it’s finished. If the cat isn’t fat then there’s no problem with this. But fat cats that are on a diet will eat the entire amount in one meal and suffer for the rest of the day. Therefore, it’s best to divide the calculated amount to 5-10 small meals per day. There are cats who are so hungry during the diet that they eat their food too quickly and eagerly, and then often vomit immediately afterwards. You can slow down the speed at which they eat by putting 2-3 ping pong balls inside their bowl with the food. There are also special feeding devices that are capable of automatically dispensing measured amounts.

5. When the cat has reached its target weight, continue feeding them a measured amount of the calorie-reduced food for the rest of their lives.

Shenkin was put on a low-calorie diet with dietetic cat food. Under my supervision and with the cooperation of the entire family, he lost 4 kg in four months. He regained his looks, agility, and alertness. It wasn’t easy, and there were some near breaking points when he would meow agonizingly at his food bowl. But the family didn’t cave in to Shenkin’s pressure, and it probably saved his life.

So treat your cat like a good friend and provide him with the conditions for a healthy lifestyle and normal weight – give him the right amount of appropriate nutrition, give him opportunities to expend energy and most importantly, make the diet a healthy and enjoyable lifestyle for you both!

Make the smart choice