By Dr. Arnie Cary, Veterinarian and Board Member of The Animal Haven, and Roberta Friedman, volunteer
During this time of pandemic, we have become increasingly aware of our propensity for gaining weight. We are more confined, less active, but still ingesting the same calories and maybe more! For a variety of reasons our pets are also at risk.
Even before the pandemic, some studies had shown that nearly sixty percent of pet cats are overweight or obese. Being overweight puts them at risk of a shorter life span due to metabolic disease (diabetes mainly), painful orthopedic disease (knee and hip problems and osteoarthritis), increased cancer incidence, urinary and cardiovascular problems, and some chronic skin problems.
A cat is considered "overweight" if he or she is ten percent or more over his or her ideal body weight, and "obese" if over 20% or more. A trip to the veterinarian will give you an estimate of what an ideal body weight might be for your cat. If you have an older cat, or obesity is diagnosed, the vet may want to do some blood work to rule out hypothyroidism (fairly rare in cats compared to dogs, but possible), early diabetes (very common in overweight cats), and other metabolic problems that could be causing the weight gain. If the blood work is normal, your vet will probably want you to put your cat on a weight loss program. A baby scale will help you monitor your cat's weight at home.
How do you help your cat lose an expanding waistline? Prevention of the problem before it begins is, of course, the best solution. If you have kittens, get them used to a routine of specific mealtimes with the right number of calories of wet and/or dry food, and do not free-feed the dry food. Watch for the loss of a waist (looking from the top and sides of the cat) and decrease the calories accordingly. Start an exercise routine at a young age and consult your veterinarian if you have any questions about how your cat is doing.
If a diet is called for, the most important thing to know is that putting your cat on a "crash diet" can be dangerous and even life-threatening, because lowering calories rapidly can cause liver failure. Instead, think about helping your cat to lose weight gradually, and ask your veterinarian for advice on how best to do that. The vet will probably tell you to stop "free feeding" dry food, recommend some of the many new safe and effective diet foods available, and to begin feeding your cat regular meals in which you limit and control the number of calories he or she eats.
While controlling calories is key to weight loss, helping your pet get more exercise is also very important. How do you get your cat to move around more? You don't need to buy fancy toys. You just need to have regular play times of 5-10 minutes a few times a day. Playing with your cat will help you get moving as well, which is always a good thing. So grab a long piece of twine, and get your cat to chase after it as you move from room to room. (Remember to put the string away when you're done playing, so the cat doesn't ingest it.) Any playtime where they are moving will help a great deal, and as a bonus, helps us develop a better "human-animal bond" with them.
Just as with humans, cats will live longer, healthier lives if they are not overweight or obese. The best way to show your cats that you love them is to not overfeed them!