The Garfield Complex – Managing the Obesity Epidemic in Cats
Read time: 6 min
Dr Caity Venniker, KatKin Veterinary Consultant
As a vet, bringing up the topic of a cat’s weight can often be a daunting task. Any suggestion that Felix or Fluffy may be a little too round around the edges is often met with an awkward shrug or an uncomfortable silence! However, obesity is considered to be the primary nutritional disorder of cats in the western world, and comes with many dangerous consequences. It is something that as cat owners we need to be talking about, so that we can address the problem if present, or avoid it altogether.
Surveys show that approximately 60% of cats seen by vets in the USA are overweight (Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 2018); with the UK estimated to fare only a little better at 40-50% (PFMA, 2019). With such a high percentage of cats being overweight, society’s perception of the “normal” weight for a cat has shifted, and so many cat owners do not even realise that their pet is overweight and at increased risk of various conditions.
"As a vet, if John brought Garfield in to see me, I'd have a long chat about my concerns for Garfield's health."
Is My Cat Overweight?
To assess if your cat is overweight it is helpful to refer to a Body Condition Score (BCS) chart, which we use in the KatKin ordering algorithm. There are different scoring systems used to assess weight but they can be very helpful in making the process slightly less subjective. When you look at your cat from above, you should be able to see the abdomen tapering behind the ribs into a waist. Ribs should not be visible but if you run your fingers with light pressure along your cat’s flanks, you should be able to feel them. If you cannot, there is a good chance that your cat is overweight.
Most cats are at their ideal weight at 12-18 months of age, so if you have any weight records then this can be a useful reference.
Risk Factors for Feline Obesity
Many factors can predispose cats to obesity, including age, sex, medication, exercise, the home environment and their relationship with their owners.
Cats generally become overweight after two years of age, and their weight tends to decrease after the age of 12. For this reason middle aged cats tend to be at the highest risk of obesity.
Male cats are at greater risk than females. Sterilization decreases the metabolic energy requirements of cats by approximately 25%, and so sterilized cats’ diets need to be adjusted accordingly.
Some medications predispose to obesity, especially corticosteroids such as prednisolone.
Inactive cats are at greater risk, as well as cats that live indoors (Rowe et al, 2015); have free access to food all the time; or live in a single or two cat household.
Dry food has been associated with higher risk of obesity compared to wet food (Rowe et al, 2015).
Stimulation of your cat and human interaction also play a role; as not only does this promote exercise, but it also helps to alleviate boredom which can lead to overeating.
The pet-owner relationship is a hugely important and direct factor in the development and avoidance of feline obesity. It is also often the most complicated factor to address as it can involve subconscious attitudes towards both food and the pet, and can be emotionally charged. Interestingly, elderly owners have been shown to have a higher chance of having an overweight cat than younger owners (Heuberger & Wakshlag, 2011). It has been suggested that owners who have a very close relationship with their cat, or where the cat may have been used as a replacement for a human companion, are more likely to overfeed their cats (Kienzle & Bergler, 2006).
It is clear that many factors contribute to feline weight gain, but ultimately it is the responsibility of the owner to manage these and try to avoid the various problems associated with obesity.
A Weighty Issue – Consequences Associated with Feline Obesity
Obesity predisposes cats to insulin resistance and diabetes, as well as skin issues; liver problems; urinary tract disease and lameness. It is also associated with heat and exercise intolerance; increased anaesthetic complications and impaired immune function (German, 2006). Even without the associated risks, obesity itself is now recognized as an inflammatory condition. It has also been shown to increase mortality by nearly three times, and even being moderately overweight reduces a cat’s life expectancy (Williams & Downing, 2018).
As a vet, if John brought Garfield in to see me, the first thing I would do is ask him for his autograph (obviously). But the second thing would be to have a long chat about my concerns for Garfield’s health. Then, if Tom came to see me; lean and fit from chasing Jerry (what a day that would be!) he would likely have the ideal BCS and be a great candidate for a long and healthy life. What is worrying is that we are all so used to seeing overweight cats that we may not even recognise that we have a Garfield and not a Tom (with all respect to Garfield, I’m a big fan).
The BIG Question – How To Beat The Bulge
The first step towards having a cat of optimal weight is awareness. It is very common to underestimate your own cat’s body condition, so it may be helpful to have your cat assessed by a vet – preferably one who you are not related to; dating; or baking for on any kind of regular basis! Once you have an idea of what your cat’s ideal weight is, then you can start working towards this with weekly weigh ins.
The choice of food is very important to the weight loss process. Wet food is associated with lower rates of obesity compared to dry food; and higher levels of protein have been shown to promote fat loss and help to avoid loss of muscle (Laflamme, 2005). Cats fed higher moisture wet food have also been shown to be more active than cats fed dry food, and this helps overweight cats to shed their excess weight (Cameron, Morris, Hackett et al., 2011)
The Long, Short, Skinny And Wide Of It
Putting a cat on diet involves calculating a calorie restriction relative to their current weight as well as ideal weight, while still maintaining adequate levels of essential vitamins and nutrients. KatKin portions meals into daily-serve pouches to take the guesswork out of mealtime. Making adjustments for weight, ideal and current body condition, and activity levels, the Katkin portions are tailored to be specific to each cat, and their personal lifestyle.
Snacking – The Hidden Calories
To put things into perspective, the average mouse consists of 30 – 35 calories. A four kilogram cat in an ideal condition, would need to catch about six mice per day to survive and maintain this weight.
Catching a mouse takes time, skill, and most importantly, energy. Today, our Garfields get the caloric equivalent of a “free mouse” every time we give them a quarter of a cup of milk; or half a boiled egg; or a mere seven grams of cheese – that’s half of a cubic inch!
KatKin is currently working on new treat options for cats, which will be complementary to the core fresh food available. These will be launched in early 2020.
As cat owners we need to be aware of the obesity epidemic around us. Calories come cheap in the modern world, but at great expense to our feline friends.
Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (2018). 2018 Pet obesity survey results. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://petobesityprevention.org/2018
Cameron, K.M., Morris, P.J., Hackett, R.M. & Speakman, J.R. (2011). The effects of increasing water content to reduce the energy density of the diet on body mass changes following caloric restriction in domestic cats. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutri, 95 (3), 399-408.
German, A.J. (2006). The growing problem of obesity in dogs and cats. J Nutr, 136 (7), 1940S-6S.
Heuberger, R. & Wakshlag, J. (2011). Characteristics of ageing pets and their owners: Dogs v. Cats. British Journal of Nutrition, 106, 150-153.
Kienzle, E., & Bergler, R. (2006). Human-animal relationship of owners of normal and overweight cats. J Nutr, 136 (7).
Laflamme, D.P., & Hannah, S.S. (2005). Increased dietary protein promotes fat loss and reduces loss of lean body mass during weight loss in cats. Int J Appl Res Vet Med, 3 (2), 62-68.
PFMA (2019). Pet obesity report 2019. Retrieved December 2, 2019, from https://www.pfma.org.uk/weight-hub
Rowe, E., Browne, W., Casey, R., Gruffydd-Jones T., & Murray, J. (2015). Risk factors identified for owner-reported feline obesity at around one year of age: Dry diet and indoor lifestyle. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 121 (3-4), 273-281.
Williams, K. & Downing, R. (2018). Obesity in cats. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/obesity-in-cats