Is feline obesity a problem?
Yes - obesity, defined as an excess of body weight of 20% or more, is the
most common nutritional disease of domestic cats. Although the frequency varies
from one country to the next, we know in some countries that up to 40% of adult
cats are obese! Despite these alarming figures, very little is known about the
detrimental effects of obesity on feline health. What we do know is that cats
that are neutered and live indoors are more likely to be obese. Similarly, male
cats are more likely to be obese. With respect to the detrimental effects on
feline health, obesity in the cat is a known risk factor for both diabetes mellitus
and lower urinary tract disease. In humans, obesity causes an increase in morbidity
and mortality at all ages and is associated with diabetes mellitus, certain
types of cancer, impaired mobility and arthritis, high blood pressure, heart
disease, and other illnesses. Recent studies suggest that heart disease might
also occur in obese cats! More work is needed to evaluate this and to determine
what other detrimental effects obesity has on cats.
Finally, obesity in cats is associated with hepatic lipidosis. This is a severe
form of liver failure in cats. It typically occurs in cats which are obese and
have then undergone a brief period of "stress" which causes anorexia.
The "stress" may be as simple as a change of house or a change in
diet. Hepatic lipidosis used to be an almost universally fatal disease in cats.
Fortunately, with improved, aggressive and prolonged therapy about 80% of affected
cats can be saved. However, it is because of the risk for this potentially fatal
disease that treatment of feline obesity needs to be done cautiously and always
under the care of a veterinary surgeon.
What specifically causes obesity in cats and how should it be treated?
Many factors work together to cause obesity in cats, and as mentioned earlier
not all of them are clearly understood. Some are probably genetic, while others
are clearly related to diet and environment. Also, as mentioned above, neutering
increases the risk for obesity in cats. It is important for the cat owner and
veterinary surgeon to keep all these factors in mind when treating the obese
individual. Prevention is better than treatment but not always easy. When cats
are neutered. Their food needs are decreased, apparently because metabolism
becomes "more efficient". Also, cats living indoors are more prone
to obesity, perhaps because they eat more out of boredom, but also because they
have less opportunity to stay trim through exercise. Remember, everybody should
run and play, including cats!
Once a cat becomes obese, the challenge for owner and veterinarian is to promote
weight loss safely and then to maintain the optimum weight. In the long run
it is better to set realistic goals for weight reduction rather than attempting
to force the cat down to a "normal" weight. Usually a 15-20% reduction
in weight is a good target that can easily be achieved! Rapid weight loss should
be avoided, since it puts the cat at risk for development of severe liver disease,
discussed above. And weight that is lost slowly is more likely to stay lost!
There are no drugs or magic pills which can be used safely or effectively. Commercial
"low-calorie" diets are available from veterinary surgeons and provide
the basis for effective weight loss. However, they are more effective when combined
with additional exercise. This also has the advantage of providing more time
for interaction between the cat and the human, which we know provides enjoyment
and is beneficial for the health of both. With some patience and extra care
obese cats can be treated safely and effectively, with the ultimate goal of
prolonging a healthy happy life!
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